On April 15, The Durango Herald printed an Associated Press report about a lawsuit filed against a New Mexico company
that procures human organs and tissues for scientific research.
When body parts (seven heads, a torso and several limbs) turned up at a medical waste facility in Kansas, the husband
of a Bernalillo County woman who had donated her organs to science filed a lawsuit for negligence, fraud and the
mishandling of her remains.
Years ago, as a district medical examiner in Florida, I was involved in a similar lawsuit.
Brett Harding, one of my forensic investigators who had previously worked for an organ transplant agency, approached me
about participating in a research donation program. He would work on his own time with an out-of-state agency to
procure for medical research tissues, organs and body parts unsuitable for donation to the living.
Brett was enthusiastic about such a program because, while working with the transplant agency, he had experienced the
disappointment of families who wanted some good to come of their loved ones' deaths but were unable to donate because
the deceased's body was medically unsuitable.
I shared his interest, and - after determining that the agency he wished to work with was reputable, contacting the
state Medical Examiners Commission to make sure there was no prohibited conflict of interest and consulting with Brett
and the procurement agency to establish his work guidelines - I agreed.
The medical examiner's office had the only morgue in town. Hospital autopsies were done there by agreement with the
county, and wildlife officials even autopsied the occasional manatee or dolphin. The county agreed (on my
recommendation) to allow employees of the procurement agency to do the harvesting at the morgue and to store frozen
remains awaiting shipment to researchers.
While the criteria for suitability of bodies for research donation are much less stringent than criteria for donation
to the living, some medical conditions present a danger to researchers or people who handle or transport remains, so
tissues from bodies that test positive for such conditions can't be used.
One of the research protocols called for a head with attached spine and spinal cord for neurological study. A
dissection was done on the body of a man whose family had consented. The head with spine was frozen and the remainder
of the man's body was cremated. Subsequently, positive tests ruled out use of the procured specimen.
All morgues and hospitals must dispose of hazardous human waste, and the tissue procurement agency contracted with a
disposal company to incinerate unsuitable tissues.
The head with spine was boxed and labeled for shipment and disposal, but through some much disputed labeling mishap, it
was delivered to an autoclave (sterilization) facility instead of the incinerator.
Someone there saw the gory specimen, took pictures and showed them to members of his family, one of whom called the
Multiple police agencies investigated what they initially feared was a case of murder and dismemberment traceable
through shipping labels to my office. The Medical Examiners Commission, Department of Business and Professional
Regulation and Florida Commission on Ethics joined the fray, the dead man's family sued all and sundry, and some
members of the media had a field day trying to prove I had somehow profited from selling body parts.
I got several calls from local police agencies: Yuk, yuk, yuk. Lose any more heads lately?"
None of the various departments and commissions found I had violated any rules, and the lawsuit against the medical
examiner's office was thrown out (though the family won a judgment from the procurement agency and waste disposal
Even so, for a long time, I felt like Indiana Jones trapped in that chamber full of snakes in Raiders of the Lost
The procurement agency ceased its Florida operations, eventually the media found other fish to fry, and, about a year
later, I moved to Colorado.
In spite of that experience, I'm a strong supporter of donation for medical research - much of which relies on the
availability of human bodies, organs and tissues.
No doctor obtains a medical degree without performing cadaveric dissection. No surgeon perfects and maintains his
skills without practice. And, without research requiring human tissue, diseases that have been conquered would still
In any human endeavor, the unforeseen happens and things go wrong and a few people behave stupidly or do a lousy job. I
haven't second guessed my decision to be a registered donor because of articles such as the one about the New Mexico
incident or because of what happened in Florida.
It was a miserable experience for all concerned, but if I had it to do over, I'd still cooperate with the procurement
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.