Medical Examiner keeps thousands of brains for 'tests' families call needless
· By SUSAN EDELMAN
· October 28, 2012
The city Medical Examiner's Office has kept the brains of more than 9,200 deceased New Yorkers — from the elderly to newborns — in the past eight years, records obtained by The Post show.
The stunning revelation comes as three families publicly question whether the city is yanking brains so rookie pathologists can "practice," for scientists' experiments, or for no good reason at all. "Vasean's organs were removed for 'testing' without any investigative or medical necessity," charges a suit by the family of Vasean Alleyne, an 11-year-old Queens boy killed by a drunken driver. Months after his burial, his mom was shocked to read in the autopsy report that her son's brain and spinal cord had been taken.
Brooklyn mom Cindy Bradshaw was stunned to learn she had buried her stillborn son, Gianni, without his brain. The ME kept it — though an autopsy found his death was caused by an abnormality in her umbilical cord and placenta.
"Do they really want to know what happened to the person, or are they just experimenting?" Bradshaw asked.
"The death had nothing to do with the brain," said her lawyer, Daniel Flanzig. "It's unconscionable — and unlawful — for the Medical Examiner not to return it to the family for a complete burial."
Others suspect organs are used as a training tool.
"I think they collect brains to allow a new neuropathologist to practice on various body parts," said Anthony Galante, a lawyer for the family of Jesse Shipley, 17, who was killed in a car crash in 2005. Friends gawked at his brain in a labeled jar on a class trip to the Staten Island morgue — two months after his funeral.
"When it comes to investigating deaths, the law gives the Medical Examiner's Office broad authority, including the retention of tissue at autopsy for further testing," said a city Law Department spokeswoman, declining further comment. The ME also declined to comment.
In November 2010, a judge ruled the city must notify families of seized organs. The ME began giving kin a form with three options: wait to claim the body pending "further testing" of organs; collect the organs later; or just let the city dispose of the organs.
The disposal method is not mentioned. But an internal ME document spells it out: "Medical waste is incinerated. Please do not tell NOK (next-of-kin) that unclaimed organs are 'cremated. . .' "
Under The Post's Freedom of Information Law request, the ME gave a list of 9,200 brains and 45 spinal cords removed between Nov. 1, 2004, and July 1, 2012. Some 7,700 brains were taken before the notifications began.
The ages of the decedents range from 99 to fetuses.
Brains harden in formaldehyde several weeks before they can be "cut" by scientists.
In Staten Island, ME staff delayed tests for "months" until a half-dozen brains were ready — to make a pathologist's trip from Manhattan "worth his while," according to testimony in the Shipley case.
But Jesse's death was no mystery: "He was killed in an auto accident. His skull had multiple fractures," lawyer Galante said.
Two days after Bradshaw's son was stillborn, April 28, an ME pathologist told her, "The autopsy was complete and I could pick him up any time," she said. The cause of death was a pregnancy complication, the autopsy confirmed. "He was a healthy baby."
But the ME called back hours after the May 4 funeral.
"I forgot to tell you, the brain is still here," the pathologist said.
The only explanation given Bradshaw, she said: "It's routine."