From the United Kingdom: "Pathologist 'Stockpiled Children's
Organs.'" In Canada, the headline: "Ontario Service Has
4,000 Autopsy Organs, Unmatched to Families." From Las Vegas, this
shocker: "Misplaced. Thrown away. Stolen. Sold? Nobody Knows What
Happened to Richard Boorman's Missing Organs." And from New York:
"Parents Shocked to Learn Examiner Kept Son's Brain."
The cleverest headline for this macabre topic: "The Great Brain Robbery."
It is the last thing grieving next-of-kin should have to worry about. But
if burying an intact body is important to a family's religious, moral
or ethical beliefs, they should ask the funeral home to make sure their
loved one has all his or her organs in place.
Now, I understand that student doctors and pathologists need to study,
hold and dissect human organs to become good physicians. But I always
thought they were donated organs. That's why I checked the donor box
on the back of my driver's license, right? But that's not always
the case. Sometimes medical examiners hold back organs of the dead and
their families have no idea.
If pressed for an answer, a pathologist would likely justify the action
by explaining it is for the advancement of science. What about the rights
of the dead?
In New York, it has been revealed that the medical examiner's office
had kept the brains of more than 9,200 people over the last eight years.
From that finding came two particular stories I won't ever forget.
First, was the case of Jesse Shipley, who died in a horrible car accident
at the age of 17. Two months after his funeral, Jesse's Staten Island
classmates happened to be on a field trip to the local morgue. There,
on a shelf in a glass jar, floated a human brain with the label JESSE
SHIPLEY. That is how Jesse's parents came to realize they had buried
their son without his brain: Tearful classmates told them.
The Shipley case changed the rules in the Empire State. Henceforth, medical
examiners were required to fully inform next of kin if any organs were
held back for examination. Families can then choose to postpone the funeral
until all tests are complete and the organs are returned or proceed with
burial or cremation.
The second case involved a woman named Cindy Bradshaw. Her attorney,
Daniel Flanzig, told me her sorrowful story. Last May, Bradshaw buried her stillborn
son, who had died from an abnormality in the umbilical cord and placenta.
Just hours after little Gianni's funeral, the medical examiner's
office called to inform her (under the Shipley regulation) that they still
had the baby's brain.
Too little effort, too late.
"Why did they keep the brain?" Flanzig asked. "They already knew
the cause of death. Our research shows the baby's brain was retained
for the purposed of research."
Indeed, there is an abundant supply of adult brains available for autopsy,
but a newborn's brain is a rare commodity for pathologists to study.
Different states have different procedures for medical examiners to follow,
and not all require the upfront honesty that New York has tried to instill.
Aggrieved families can sue in civil court, claiming their common law right
of sepulcher has been violated (the right to find "solace and comfort
in the ritual of burial," as one judge explained), but none of these
missing organ cases is considered to be a crime. Only the black-market
sale of organs rises to the level of a felony criminal case.
There are those who might think: "Well, the person is dead. What does
it matter?" Please, don't tell that to Mary Jane and Dan McCann
of Fairfax County, Va. I spoke to an agonized Mary Jane last week and
wrote about their sad case last year. For four years now, they have tirelessly
fought the Baltimore medical examiner's finding that their 16-year-old
daughter, Annie, committed suicide by drinking Bactine. (The honor roll
student carried a small bottle of Bactine to cleanse her newly pierced ears.)
The makers of the antiseptic as well as other prominent medical examiners
pooh-pooh the idea that Bactine could cause death. In reviewing Annie's
autopsy seven months after her burial, her devoutly Catholic parents were
shocked to find her brain and heart had not been interred with her.
As the McCann's put it, "The state has no right to abort our effort
at a Christian burial by carelessly losing our Annie's brain and heart
— her very essence."
To make matters worse, they still can't find out if Annie was raped.
The Baltimore police say they must get that information from the medical
examiner's office. The ME then refers them back to the police. Catch-22,
This may not be an important issue in your life — not yet, anyway
— but for countless Americans like the Shipleys, Bradshaws and McCanns,
it has left a gaping wound in their soul.
I think it is time for a uniformed set of standards that require each state
and every medical professional that deals with the dead to be responsible
for restoring a deceased patient to their pre-autopsy condition. If an
organ must be held for further examination — a brain, for example,
must harden in a formaldehyde solution for several weeks before it can
be biopsied — then full notification to the family must be made.
Withholding organs without permission may not constitute a crime, but in
my book it's a crime against nature.
Visit Diane Dimond's official website at www.dianedimond.com for investigative
reporting, polls and more. To find out more about Diane Dimond and read
features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the
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