Current Trends - Organ Donation to Medical Science (Gone Wrong?) - Episode 22
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another episode of Legal Tea! Today’s topic is a current trend … something going on in current time, that is pertinent to my world. Today’s topic may not be for everyone, especially if you get light-headed and queasy talking about “blood and guts.” To be fair, when I was a wee one, I fainted in art class at Bainbridge Elementary (shout out to my roots!) when I saw another kid faint, bang his head or nose (I forget which one!), and he started bleeding. I don’t do blood and guts, either, but here I am…!
So anyway, today we’re going to be talking about donating bodies to medical science after people pass away – and specifically about a story released in the New York Times about a gentleman that passed away, who wanted his body donated to medical science, and his body was dissected for a paying audience. The kicker? The gentleman’s widow had no idea that his body would be dissected in this manner…
Who was the gentleman? Let’s put a name to him – he was David Saunders, from Louisiana, and was 98 years old when he passed away. (Side note: I saw some sources say he was 98, and others say he was 86 years old when he passed. More sources said he was 98 – so take that as you wish…) At the time of his passing, David was married to Elsie Saunders. According to the New York Times article, Elsie explained that when she donated David’s body, she thought she was donating it “for medical science.”
The event hit the news first in Seattle with King 5 news station – a journalist from the station actually had attended. According to King 5 news, attendees paid “up to $500” to witness the dissection live – “VIP customers, who paid the $500 ticket price, sat in the front row inches from the table.” The dissection table, that is. Ugh. Elsie explained that she learned about the event through the news and said, “Five hundred a seat for people to watch – this is not science, this is commercialism.”
According to King 5 news, the individual that did the dissection was Dr. Colin Henderson, who is a retired professor from University of Montana. Dr. Henderson, during the event, proceeded to “draw a surgical knife and over the course of the next several hours cut into the chest cavity, head, and limbs of the corpse. He removed various organs and the brain,…” It was reported that one of the attendees stated that “it was very educational … and it was very respectful to the person that donated their body.”
According to New York Times, the event was attended by 70 people and was advertised as a “cadaver lab.” Furthermore, according to the page (I’m assuming like a website or something) for the event, it stated it was “brought to you by a company called Death Science and a second organization, the Oddities & Curiosities Expo.” The founder of Death Science is a gentleman by the name of Jeremy Ciliberto and he said that “his goal was to create an educational experience for individuals who have an interest in learning more about human anatomy.”
He further shared, “We understand that this event has caused undue stress for the family and we apologize for that.” A little side note – in my research for this episode, I found out that Jeremy has a TikTok account (username is DeathScience) and he has over 1 million followers. In the source links for this episode, I linked to his TikTok account – so you can take a gander!
Following the event, it seems more and more people and representatives have started pointing the finger at one another. Maybe it’s warranted, maybe not. But, like for example, the event was hosted by the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront. The general manager at the location, Martin McAllister, stated via an email to the New York Times that “his team was grossly misled by the client about the nature of this event.”
The New York Times article shared that Elsie, the widow, attempted to donate David’s body to Louisiana State University’s medical school – but they declined because he had died of an infectious disease. (Actually, I believe he had COVID-19.) After LSU declined, she asked a funeral home in Baton Rouge, who referred her to an organization called Med Ed Labs. According to Med Ed Labs’ website, they provide “strategic services to set up … training for military, government, commercial, and non-for-profit organizations.” New York Times interpreted that to mean they “provide cadavers” to these organizations.
Don’t you worry, the finger-pointing continues…
Elsie stated, “At no time did they tell me they were going to resell his body. Under no circumstances would I have my husband’s body put on display.” Conversely, Med Ed Labs adamantly denied any wrongdoing and stated that Elsie actually had given her consent for David’s body to be donated. Furthermore, Med Ed Labs explained that they were not aware that people would be paying to attend the event “featuring one of their donors.”
A gentleman by the name of Kyle Miller was a former-spokesperson for Death Science. Emphasis on “former” there in that sentence. Anyway, he stated, in the New York Times article, that Death Science puts on educational events for the public in the fields of forensics and anatomy – and that a similar event to David’s had been planned (after David’s) for October 31st, but it got cancelled. Kyle further added that Med Ed Labs and Death Science dissolved their partnership, which I thought was quite interesting to hear.
Kyle seemed to put much of the blame on Med Ed Labs – he shared that Med Ed Labs actually is who not only provided the cadaver, the tools, and the individual who did the dissection, but they also booked the hotel venue. He claims they also knew that those attending the event were “not exclusively medical students.” Contrary to what Kyle had stated, the manager of Med Ed Labs, Obteen Nassiri, explained in an interview that 1) the body was to be used for medical education for students and practitioners, 2) Death Science contacted them stated they needed a cadaver to “teach students anatomy”, and 3) they did some research and saw they (Death Science) were attempting to teach about the science of death.
Mr. Nassiri shared that had picked up the phone to call Elsie and that “she was extremely upset this company (Death Science) went behind us and sold tickets for this event to people who were not medical staff and students.” The New York Times article shared that following the event, David’s body was heading back to Louisiana and that Mr. Nassiri said that Med Ed Labs would pay for the cremation of the body and an urn. According to a King 5 news article, David’s body returned home on November 6, 2021.
According to that same article, David’s casket was flag-draped, as David was a Veteran who served in WWII and the Korean War. What a guy – thank you for your service, David (and family)! David’s grand-nephew, Harold Adkins, said (after he had returned home), “We’re glad he’s home, and we look forward to the proper burial, cremation, and memorial service so we can honor this man’s life.” Because of what happened to David’s body, Harold had concerns as to whether the body was, indeed, David. So, he “viewed and positively identified [his] body at the mortuary…” He said, “To see a loved one, I wouldn’t say dismembered, but butchered in that context, from every part of the body is just – it sickens me.”
All-in-all, there sure was a lot of finger-pointing, right? According to King 5 news, the founder of Death Science, that Jeremy Ciliberto guy, stated he has no regrets – and actually stated he plans to continue doing these “pay-per-view autopsies.” He shared, “We’re looking at more locations across the United States in 2022.” So there you go… crazy, right?!
What do we learn from this?
Well, I’d love to get my hands on the contracts, the legalese, all the documents to show what Elsie, David’s widow, consented to and what was not expressly consented to. In my research for the episode, I didn’t see anything about lawsuits getting filed, so perhaps that means either 1) Elsie wanted to put this to rest and not lawyer up or 2) Elsie inadvertently consented to what happened and she didn’t have a leg to stand on lawyering up. Either way, it sounds like what Elsie went through was NOT what she expected nor what she signed up for. She lost her husband, and now this was like salt in the wound.
“What happens” after we pass away (as in a literal what-are-we-doing-with-this-body) is something that is sometimes brought up in an estate planning conversation. I’ve had clients want me to build in specific provisions in documents on their final arrangements like traditional burial/funeral, cremation, donation of the body to medical science, etc. Those that are particularly interested in the latter, I encourage you to start your research now – learn about the process, read the fine print, etc. Heck, even bring up this story, and see what they say.
I’ve even seen where some clients, who do wish to donate their body to medical science, have, while they’re living, communicated with the establishment. For example, I know here in Indiana, Indiana University School of Medicine is a popular choice to donate their body. And IU’s School of Medicine has quite the extensive website, information, and process that you can take a look at. I’m linking a direct link to their website in the source links for this episode, if you want to take a look. Anyway, they have a FAQ section, and I found some of the questions AND answers on there super interesting.
Alrighty, let’s wrap up this “blood and guts” episode already … geez!
Next week’s topic is on estate planning of the rich and the famous – on that episode, we’re going to talk about Robin Williams – in my personal opinion, I think he was one of the greatest actors! Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji -who knew he was the voice of the Genie on Aladdin? So yeah, we will talk about him and his estate next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners!
Talk to you then and stay well!