Families Deserve to Know When Loved Ones’ Organs Are Kept

by Diane Dimond on February 19, 2013

“The Great Brain Robbery”

The worldwide headlines say it all. 

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 of his or her organs in place. 

Study Should Be Done on Donated Organs

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 studied over 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 most 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 in the past eight years. From that finding came two particular stories I won’t ever forget. 

Classmates Saw Shipley’s Brain in Jar

First, was the case of Jesse Shipley, who died in a horrible car accident at age 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. 

Pflanzig: Kept Baby’s Brain for the “Purpose of Research”

“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 purpose 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.) 

Mary and Annie McCann

The makers of the antiseptic as well as other prominent medical examiners pooh-pooh the idea that a small amount of 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 McCanns 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, Baltimore style. 

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. 

Medical Profession Should Police Itself

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 his or her 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.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Facebook Friend Ronald Jeffries Tallman writes:

“I learned something here. I always believed organs were spoken for practically as soon as a person dies or is killed. Research should be by permission from family and also if the deceased had had a chance to authorize it. Stashing and collecting organs should be illegal if not unethical as you note, DD. Selling them IS illegal and I often wonder how often that goes on.”

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Twitter Friend Lisa6654 11:09am via Twitter for iPhone

“@DiDimond OM Gosh what the heck!!! Where do they store them??? Weird do they give them scientist ?? Wow this is creepy!!!!!!”

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Dear @lisa6654

They store in formaldehyde or in freezers and then conduct scientific research on the harvested organs. OK if organs donated, I think, as student pathologists have to have real life experience. But – Not OK if they just take the organs without permission. ~ DD

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Twitter Friend snowbird920164 writes:

“@DiDimond So wrong, permission from families should be needed!”

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Twitter Friend CuriousShell writes:

” @DiDimond Interesting! Do you think this is a reason for MEs quick decision to list some victims as John/Jane Doe?”

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Dear CuriousShell,

I never thought of that! Maybe… don’t think M.E. Offices are really equipped to do detective work to figure out the identity of a corpse with no I.D. Declaring Jane or John Doe would be easier!

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Twitter Friend cdyhghs writes:

” @DiDimond I could see If they had permission to study it like, to find out why someone killed someone but w/o permission is wrong!”

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Twitter Friend YusefSalim writes:

” @DiDimond This practice of withholding a deceased person’s organs without permission of family should be considered criminal!”

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Twitter Friend DebFrmHell writes:

“@DiDimond I thought that they kept slides for future testing in possible criminal cases. I didn’t know they could keep the whole “item””

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Twitter Friend lisa6654 writes:

“@DiDimond Wow Thanks Diane!! You always find out certain things that really wouldn’t think of !! I follow reports you do!! Your the best!?????!”

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Diane Dimond February 19, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Twitter Friend 1347judy writes:

“@DiDimond My jaw dropped when I read your article on the organs that were stolen from those families. Outraged by this!”

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Diane Dimond February 24, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Huffington Post Reader Ruby Davis writes:

“In my book it’s a crime to withhold any organs without prior written permission from the family and/or signed official document (like the drivers license) authorizing them to do so!!!”

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