Monday, January 16, 2006

Human "chop shop" operation: The ultimate in healthcare corruption

An incredible, quite terrible example of corruption in healthcare and new risks in a time of advancing medical technology such as tranplants: the selling of body parts.

If this story is true, it perhaps represents a quantum leap in healthcare malfeasance. It is morally appalling beyond the worst financial scandal coming from the executive suites:

Grisly finds giving patients new worries

By Wendy Ruderman
Inquirer Staff Writer

Ideally, donated body parts of the dead are supposed to rejuvenate the living.

But a corpse-snatching scheme has left hundreds of transplant patients, many in this area, feeling like the walking dead.

Some now fear that their own bodies harbor HIV, hepatitis and other infectious viruses after being implanted with illegally harvested body parts that were not properly screened for disease.

"I could be walking around with the bones of a drug addict, an IV-drug user," Deptford resident Anthony J. Vitola said in an interview in the last week. "And there is nothing I can do about it. They are in my neck now. That's the angry part. I'm walking around with stolen parts. This whole experience is like a bad movie - and I can't walk out of the theater."

The macabre scheme - described by Vitola's lawyer as a "human chop shop operation" - has left victims on both sides of the grave: People who underwent skin grafts, dental implants or orthopedic surgeries. And relatives whose deceased loved ones, including famed British-born broadcaster Alistair Cooke, were carved up and mined for parts without their consent.

The case also has rattled a growing billion-dollar transplant industry made up of legitimate tissue-and-bone harvesters, processors, and distributors who ship the parts to hospitals around the country.

Vitola, who had three damaged neck disks replaced with cadaver bone in July, is one of 58 patients who received tissue, bone or tendons during surgeries at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point before the parts were recalled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
[Now we have recalls not just on auto parts but on body parts? Sickening - ed.]

Three Shore Memorial patients recently tested positive for infections - two for hepatitis and one for syphilis, said Andrew D'Arcy, a Galloway Township lawyer who represents them.

Shore Memorial spokeswoman Margie Barham said the hospital had no idea that the body parts were stolen and was a "victim of this, as well."

"It's very upsetting," Barham said Wednesday. "We're outraged about what's happened to these patients."

The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office, which is investigating the alleged scheme, is investigating Michael Mastromarino, a former dental surgeon from North Jersey, and several New York funeral homes.

New York and federal authorities have indicated they believe that Mastromarino paid funeral directors for access to corpses and then sold the illegally obtained parts to legitimate tissue-and-bone processors in New Jersey, Georgia, Texas and Florida.

Investigators, who have been exhuming bodies from New York cemeteries, discovered in November that the leg bones of an 82-year-old Queens woman were replaced with plastic plumbing pipe.

In late October, the FDA announced that it was investigating whether bone, skin and tendons supplied by Mastromarino's Fort Lee-based Biomedical Tissue Services came from ineligible human donors who weren't properly screened for certain infectious diseases.

Mastromarino, 42, has not been charged. His lawyer, Mario Gallucci, acknowledged that his client was under investigation but said he did nothing wrong. Gallucci said yearly audits conducted by New York and federal health officials since Mastromarino started Biomedical in late 2001 found the operation to be "pristine."

"He did everything he was supposed to do, the right way," Gallucci said Thursday from his office in Staten Island.

But the FDA has recommended that patients who received human parts supplied by Biomedical get tested for HIV, hepatitis and syphilis.

For Vitola, the shame and embarrassment of getting tested was almost unbearable. The lab technician put on a double pair of plastic gloves when she saw Vitola's test order, he recalled.

"I'm 52 years old and I'm getting tested for AIDS and syphilis?" Vitola said.

Vitola's results were negative, but his doctor wants him to be tested every three months for up to 10 years, citing a potential dormancy period of certain infectious diseases.

Last month, Vitola's lawyer, Kenneth G. Andres Jr. of Haddonfield, filed a class-action lawsuit in Superior Court in Atlantic County against Mastromarino, his firm, five tissue processors, and the distributor who shipped the body parts to Shore Memorial.

The hospital is not named in the suit and Vitola praised its staff and the neurosurgeon who performed his surgery for their care and for promptly alerting him about the FDA recall.

The Oct. 26 FDA recall notice deems the chances of infection to be at low risk because "the tissues were routinely processed using methods that help to reduce the risk of infectious disease."

But the notice goes on to say, "However, the actual infectious risk is unknown."

The words, implant patients say, are chilling.

"How about if I had a jar of that tissue in my office right now?" said attorney D'Arcy, who declined to identify his three clients who tested positive for infection. "Would people who are saying that it's low risk be willing to let me inject them with some of it?"

D'Arcy said about 175 potential victims from around the country have contacted his law office and nearly 60 - most from this region - have retained his firm.

"I was just totally freaked out," said one client, Heather Augustin, 42. "It's still this constant fear of, 'Well, am I going to get something?' "

Augustin, an administrative assistant from Mays Landing who had neck disks replaced at Shore Memorial in March, said that, even though she tested negative for infection, she is afraid to let her 11 nieces and nephews drink out of her cup.

Augustin and another patient from Mays Landing, Gary Pieper, have filed lawsuits similar to Vitola's.

"I think about the fact that somebody's body was mutilated and basically torn apart for the sake of profit and I was a recipient of one of these bones," Pieper said.

Pieper, 57, said his neurosurgeon opted to use a cadaver bone from a younger donor rather than take a piece of Pieper's own bone to replace a ruptured neck disk last year. The surgeon thought that Pieper's older bones might be too brittle and more prone to shattering under stress, he said.

Now he is left to wonder the age of the cadaver bone inside him, he said.

Ten days before Christmas, a New York detective called Alistair Cooke's daughter at her Vermont home and said her father's body was illegally raided for parts. Cooke, best known for hosting the PBS television series Masterpiece Theater, died in March 2004 at the age of 95 of lung cancer that had spread to his bones, said the Rev. Susan Cooke Kittredge.

The donor-consent form falsely stated that Cooke died of a heart attack at age 85 - the age limit set by most bone and tissue banks for donation, according to authorities and Kittredge.

In an interview from her home last week, Kittredge said it was horrific to think that people like Pieper might be walking around with a piece of bone compromised by cancer that might not offer much structural support.

"The patients who got Alistair Cooke's bones are not going to get cancer," Colorado pathologist Michael Bauer said. "The problem is, the bones that they got from Alistair Cooke may not have the same integrity."

The FDA launched its investigation into Biomedical after Bauer, a consultant hired by tissue processing firms to review donor medical charts, noticed that the phone numbers of doctors and relatives listed on the records of nearly 30 donor corpses were incorrect. Each chart was signed or initialled by Mastromarino, Bauer said.

Kittredge said her father, who had a "weak stomach," would be sickened to know that his body had been violated.

"It would have made his skin crawl," she said. "This would seem really wrong to him in a way that struck to his core."

Kittredge, 56, a United Church of Christ minister, said she realizes that "our bodies are not the essence of who we are," but they are "vessels" that carried the spirit of a loved one and should be treated with respect.

But now she can't stop picturing her father's desecrated corpse.

"It's as if some ghoulish phantom was released," she said. "Nobody wants the icy finger from the grave. It's so disturbing because I can't get beyond the body. For the last month, I've lived with my father's cadaver sitting right next to me."

-- SS


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Anonymous said...

Embalmer Granted Separate NYC Trial in Body Parts Scandal