Bitter Harvest

His brothers and sisters weren't too pleased with the way Alton Arnic looked as he lay in his casket before his December 1994 funeral. But there wasn't much the mortician could have done about it.

The 55-year-old Arnic had been riding a Metro bus to his job at Goodwill Industries when he suddenly collapsed and died. His body was taken to the county morgue, where an autopsy revealed that he had expired from a massive heart attack.

That cause-of-death determination didn't explain the nasty, jagged scar stretching across the top of Arnic's bald head, which was plainly visible to mourners at Lockwood Funeral Home.

His family was even less pleased six weeks after the burial when it was contacted by the Transplantation Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1993 to obtain tissue and organs for neurosurgeons to use in transplant operations. The foundation was asking permission to use Arnic's dura mater, the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord and lines the inner surface of the skull, for transplant. A call to the mortician at Lockwood revealed to the Arnics that their brother's dura mater had been removed at the Harris County morgue.

In a subsequent letter of complaint to the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners, Arnic's survivors explained that the request from the foundation had struck them as odd, since their brother had not completed any sort of donor card or document prior to his death.

When they contacted the M.E.'s Office about the call, they were told that state law permits the removal of body parts for use in transplants or research without written consent. The Arnics then got in touch with an attorney, who informed them that the unauthorized harvesting of tissue is, in fact, illegal.

"The actions of the [Medical Examiner's Office] have caused our family a considerable amount of grief and have prolonged the mourning of our brother's sudden death," the Arnics stated in a letter a few months later to Commissioners Court. "We cannot understand how the [M.E.'s Office] can unilaterally remove body tissue and parts from human remains and preserve such tissue for transplantation without any authority whatsoever. This, we believe, demonstrates total disrespect for the deceased and total disregard for the family."

A similar letter to the M.E.'s Office drew a short reply from Medical Examiner Joseph Jachimczyk, who denied any wrongdoing on the part of his office, expressed his sympathy to the Arnic family and indicated he would be forwarding their correspondence to the County Attorney's Office.

"Our prayers are that you should not agonize any more than necessary on the loss of a dear one," Jachimczyk wrote.

The Arnics' complaint got the attention of Commissioners Court, especially after commissioners learned that the M.E.'s Office had been providing tissue to the Transplant Research Foundation through an informal, unwritten arrangement. Last month, they formalized the relationship by approving a contract for the transfers. The contract ensures that the M.E.'s Office will adhere to the guidelines of the Texas Anatomical Gift Act, which, in most cases, requires written or recorded authorization from the donor or the donor's next-of-kin before the harvesting of any tissue from corpses.

Those changes were too late in coming for Alton Arnic's family, which is suing the M.E.'s Office and the Transplant Research Foundation for an unspecified amount of damages.

"I just feel that this is the tip of the iceberg and that they've been doing this for quite a while," says attorney U. Lawrence Boze. "They are now trying to legalize what they've been doing with an unwritten agreement."

While it's unclear how widespread the practice was, Boze says he's gotten calls from others who suspect tissue was harvested from their loved ones without authorization. He's contemplating a class-action suit.

The lawyer points out that state law forbids the physician who certifies the death of a potential donor from participating in the removal of the decedent's organs or tissue for transplant purposes.

"I guarantee you they did that in this case," says Boze. "And a chill went down my spine when the Arnic family came to see me and showed me pictures of what [the M.E.'s Office] had done to their brother. This is real ghoulish. This is Frankenstein kind of crap." -- Steve McVicker


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