April 02, 2005

Seattle Secretly Selling Sick Brains From Morgue

This sounds almost like a sick joke -- but it isn't.

Imagine the moment of deepest loss. Your spouse, parent, sibling or child is dead. You've lived for with the difficulties that came with this loved one's mental illness. You've hoped and prayed for a cure of some kind for the disease from which they suffered for years. And now someone from the lab asks for tissue samples from their brain and other organs for research purposes. It would be hard to say no. And that's what they counted on -- that, and the probability that you would ask no further questions.

Folks on Vashon Island called him "Cool Gary," a local schizophrenic who loved hitchhiking and playing practical jokes.

When Gary died jumping into traffic in November 1998, his body wound up at the King County Morgue.

Less than 72 hours later, Gary's brain was removed and mailed to Bethesda, Md. It became property of The Stanley Medical Research Institute, a multimillion-dollar company that studies mental disorders.

"I can't believe what is happening here," said Bill Lynn, Gary's father.

Bill Lynn says he's never heard of Stanley. He at first thought KIRO Team 7 Investigators were kidding when we showed him proof that King County profited from harvesting his son's brain.

"You're crazy! I didn't raise my kids to sell 'em. This is unreasonable. Why would I agree with any hospital or anybody to receive any money for any body parts? No way! I'm just not built that way," Lynn said.

So what about this written "consent form" provided to KIRO Team 7 Investigators by King County as proof that Bill authorized the brain donation?

"Something is rotten in Denmark, that's for sure. No, I never, I didn't sign anything. That's not my writing here," Lynn said.

Here's what Lynn says did happen: The Medical Examiner's office called on the phone, asking for a "skin and brain tissue donation."

"They didn't tell me they were going to sell it. I'd have said 'no' right off the bat," said Lynn.

I could imagine an honest conversation about what was going on. Tell me what you think.

"Hi, This is Bob from over at the county morgue. I'm mighty sorry your son died. Would you be willing to give us your son't brain so we can sell it to a company? No sir, you and your family won't get a share of the profits. It'll all go into the office budget so we can buy copier supplies and some new equipment."

Who wouldn't have said no? I mean, what person in their right mind (forgive the phrase) would take that deal? The entire notion is obscene. And while I was a bit flip about what the money was being spent on (it isn't clear where the money went, exactly), I think the point is pretty clear.

Lynn's story is a familiar one. KIRO Team 7 Investigators contacted a half dozen families, which we confirmed had donated brains via King County. None knew of Stanley. None knew of money changing hands.

"It was my feeling that they were maybe going to run some tests on his brain tissue," said Vicki Hendricks.

Hendricks's son Jim died suddenly at 36 years old. She gave permission for King County to take brain "samples" thinking they needed them to determine cause of death. Jim's whole brain instead ended up at Stanley Medical.

"Those are public servants, people we rely on to be there for us, and if you can't feel comfortable with them, then it's kind of scary," Hendricks said.

What are teh ethics of such a program. KIRO-TV, which did the investigation, asked medical ethicist Dr. Elliot Stern about that.

Contracts vary a little each year, but the one in 2003 said "the KCME will try to collect a minimum of 50 specimens." For those efforts, Stanley sent big monthly checks to the medical examiner's office -- far exceeding the true costs of removing and shipping brains.

"That's a huge breach of public trust," said Dr. Elliot Stern.

Stern is a recognized expert in donation ethics. He says King County has big trouble ahead. If next-of-kin are not fully informed, courts consider that no consent at all.

"I would not have made a donation," Dr. Stern said. "I don't know a reasonable person who would have made a donation knowing money was going to change hands and enter county coffers in excess of harvesting costs."

So yeah, there is a big problem there. The consent gien probably is not legally valid due to the details left out.

When there was consent at all.

Records indicate more brains shipped than there were consent forms.

This could get really ugly.

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