Furor over pigskin treatment of burn victims simmers in N.Y.

NEW YORK — A furor is erupting over the use of pigskin to treat Orthodox Jewish children with serious burns at New York's pre-eminent pediatric burn center.

But the unhappiness may be rooted in ignorance, according to an Orthodox expert in Jewish medical ethics.

"Jewish law has no objection whatsoever to the use of pigskin in the treatment of burns," according to Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a professor of medical ethics at Yeshiva University, where he is also a professor of Talmud and a dean.

"God did not make pigs in order to make footballs," Tendler said in a telephone interview.

"Pigs were made for man's utility. The nonedible use of pigs is perfectly 100 percent all right. The prohibition against pig is only eating it."

The imbroglio, detailed in an article by Katherine Eban Finkelstein in the March 19 issue of the New York Observer, a Manhattan-based weekly, dates back to January.

At that time, Jewish parents from the haredi, or ultrareligious, community complained to New York City's health department that doctors at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center's burn center were using pigskin, rather than human skin, to treat their burned children.

In response to the complaints, the city agency launched an investigation, especially because most of the children being treated with pigskin were Orthodox, the Observer reported.

Pigskin is cheaper to use than human skin and is not considered the highest standard of care available today to treat burns, the Observer article said, raising questions about whether there was some discrimination involved.

And because New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center's burn center houses the largest skin bank in the country, it seemed doubly puzzling to the patients' families that they would be offered only pigskin.

One complainant was a Chassidic family that arrived at New York Hospital's burn center with their 4-year-old son, Samuel Cohen, who had been badly burned over most of his face, back, head and arm from a spilled pot of soup, according to the Observer story.

The boy's father, Abraham, wearing a black suit and yarmulke, with payot curled behind his ears, was clearly an Orthodox Jew.

According to the article, Samuel's doctor, Michael Madden, a senior surgeon at the burn center, recommended the use of pigskin, a course of treatment that the elder Cohen thought seemed odd, if not insensitive.

Human skin is a preferred treatment, according to the article, and pigskin is rarely used these days, particularly on deep burns such as those Samuel Cohen suffered.

But pigskin was offered to Jewish children six times in two months. Jewish children accounted for one-quarter of patients at the pediatric burn unit in 1995, the latest year for which figures are available.

Hospital spokeswoman Myrna Manners told the Observer that pigskin dressings are used on all patients when appropriate and that they are never used without the consent of the patient and, if necessary, his or her spiritual adviser.

According to Tendler, pigskin is considered a valid treatment in burn cases because its use lessens the chances that a patient's immune system will reject the graft, which can happen when human skin is used.

Using pigskin also prevents the possibility that the patient is contaminated by human tissue, which could contain the AIDS virus or hepatitis, Tendler said.

But the elder Cohen consulted several rabbis and doctors, according to the article, and decided that because it is rarely used these days, he did not want it used on his son.

"Once they used the word `pig,' I don't have to tell you what happened," said Jacob Landau, quoted in the story and identified as a Chassidic community activist who has spoken with several of the children's parents. "What's going on is of great concern to us."

Glenn Warden, an internationally recognized burn surgeon and chief of staff at the Shriners' Burns Institute in Cincinnati, told the Observer, "I'm not Jewish, I'm Methodist, but come on. I would obviously not offer pigskin to the Jewish community. That's just common sense. Jesus, you'd think they'd know that in New York!"

But according to Tendler, these views are based on a complete misunderstanding of what Jewish law has to say about the use of nonkosher products for medical purposes.

"They're just totally ignorant of Jewish law," he said. "`Haredi' does not mean learned. It can also mean ignorant of Jewish law."