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Families of Body Donors Grieving Again

Questions about what happened to loved ones at UCLA may never be answered.

March 12, 2004|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

It took two years for Susan Brenner to come to peace with her mother's 1999 death. Now, the grief is back, and it feels endless.

Brenner fears that her mother's was one of hundreds of corpses sold in a body-trafficking scheme at UCLA medical school -- but she doesn't know, and may never know for sure.

"I feel like she's died all over again," said Brenner, 61, who lives in Duarte. "It's like someone's in a coma. They're neither alive nor dead. It is a sense of limbo, but it has brought all the grieving back."

When her 83-year-old mother donated her body to UCLA, Brenner considered it a noble gesture, one that would advance science and help prepare future doctors.

For the last week, though, she has wondered whether her mother's body was cut up and sold for parts by profiteers whose clients included giant medical corporations.

"I knew that they would be doing experiments and research on her," Brenner said. "But reading about them taking a saw in there and just hacking off body parts, I almost wanted to throw up.... I don't have any sense of closure anymore."

Earlier this week, UCLA officials indefinitely suspended the willed body program while they decide whether to make reforms or close it permanently.

Dr. J. Thomas Rosenthal, associate vice chancellor of UCLA's medical school, said officials there are as shocked as the donors' families about the alleged scheme involving the director of the willed body program, Henry G. Reid, and a middleman, Ernest V. Nelson.

Rosenthal said the university is committed to finding out what happened, but may or may not come up with the answers that families are seeking.

"At this point in time, I really wouldn't want to speculate on what's possible or what's impossible," he said. "It's our intention to track absolutely as much as we possibly, humanly can do."

For now, officials can't even begin to figure out which donors' bodies were involved because campus police have seized the program's records as part of their criminal investigation.

Even when the records come back, it may not be possible to determine which bodies were used to teach medical students and which cadavers were sold.

For one thing, although bodies were tracked by logbooks and a computer database, Reid was in charge of keeping those records, and his credibility is now in question. For another, even bodies used legitimately for research and teaching were cremated and the remains scattered, making it impossible to confirm their identities now.

That doesn't keep worried families from asking questions. Rosenthal said a toll-free number set up by UCLA for donors' relatives has received about 200 calls since Monday.

Kay Vanden Bosch of Woodland Hills said she called Thursday and asked UCLA to notify her when they know more about her 89-year-old father, a body donor who died in October 2001.

"You keep thinking about it," she said. "I keep wondering what really happened and where did he end up at?"

About 175 people donate their bodies to UCLA each year to help educate first-year medical students on the basics of anatomy and to help researchers make medical advances. About 11,000 people are on UCLA's registry to donate their bodies there when they die.

Last weekend, UCLA police arrested Reid on suspicion of grand theft. They also arrested Nelson on suspicion of receiving stolen property. Both were released after posting bond.

Nelson has told The Times that he cut up as many as 800 bodies at UCLA over six years with the full knowledge and permission of university officials. His lawyer showed the newspaper invoices on university letterhead, in which Reid apparently charged him nearly $705,000 for 496 cadavers.

Reid, who has been placed on leave, has declined reporters' requests for comment.

While police investigate, relatives wait.

Yvonne Stephens said the cemetery she has selected will not erect a plaque in honor of her father, a World War II veteran, until she can show that he was cremated.

"Since we don't have his body, I'd like to have somewhere that we could go on Veterans Day or Memorial Day and at least have his name there," said Stephens, 49, who lives in Corona. "I just want to find out what happened."

John Hisserich, associate vice president of health affairs at USC, who oversees the willed body program there, said that if Reid sold the cadavers to outside brokers over the years, as alleged, it would be very hard to figure out where they went.

"If they were all just on their campus, it would be a challenge," Hisserich said. "If they've shipped things out, that makes it even more difficult.... I won't say they can't do it, but I will say it's an extremely difficult task."

USC does not ship cadavers off campus, Hisserich said.

Ilene Rockman said she isn't counting on an answer about her mother, who died in May 2000.

"I can live with a decision of uncertainty," she said. "But given the opportunity to find out the specific information, I certainly want to take that opportunity."

Brenner isn't as forgiving. She remembers her mother's refrain about medical school, which she never managed to attend in life.

"If I can't go in the front door," Kendall Nobles told her daughter, "I'll go in the back door."

After reading the papers in the last few days, Brenner said, she hasn't been able to sleep.

"I'm going to always be sorry in a way that we did this because I'm not going to know," she said. "I'm sure this is like people who found out their parents' bodies were robbed out of their graves."

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Families who have questions or concerns about the willed body program may call UCLA at (866) 317-6374.

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