Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Coroner facing new controversy

Family objects to taking of woman's brain

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The cause of the stroke that eventually killed Bertha Pruitt on Dec. 26 was a mystery until a doctor at the Hamilton County Coroner's Office performed an autopsy of the 77-year-old woman's brain.

        Family members were shocked when they found out Ms. Pruitt's brain stayed at the coroner's office while her body was buried Dec. 30.

        Attorney Lou Rubenstein said the county never asked the Pruitt family for permission to hold onto the organ, and never asked before showing the brain during a neurological conference Jan. 3.

        The Hamilton County Coroner's Office says it's done all the time.

        Coroner Dr. Carl Parrott said brains are kept for examination in about one out of every 20 autopsies. In those cases, the brain must be soaked in a formaldehyde solution for seven to 10 days so that the tissue holds together for doctors to examine.

        The body parts are cremated after examination.

        Dr. Parrott said it is up to the individual family to notify his office if they have any objection to the body parts being taken.

        “It's not standard practice here and has never been standard practice here” to notify families when organs are kept, Dr. Parrott said. “It's not standard practice at any office in the state of Ohio or nationally, so far as I know.”

        Mr. Rubenstein put Hamilton County commissioners on notice Tuesday that he may file a lawsuit over the matter because no one in the family authorized the coroner to keep Ms. Pruitt's organ.

        “This is very, very emotionally difficult for (Charlie) Pruitt,” who is Ms. Pruitt's son, said Mr. Rubenstein. “The revelation that his mother was buried without all of her parts has sort of reopened the wound.”

        Mr. Pruitt declined to be interviewed.

        “We want to determine if there is a logical and fair explanation to this,” Mr. Rubenstein said.

        There is, said Dr. Daniel Schultz, who performed the autopsy on Ms. Pruitt.

        Dr. Schultz said before performing an autopsy on a brain — particularly one which has suffered a stroke — the muscle must be soaked in the solution so that doctors don't miss important clues about the cause of death. That makes burial with the body impossible, he said.

        He added that the “neurological conference” is the examination of the brain and takes place in the basement of the coroner's office.

        “Not to do that would be negligent,” Dr. Schultz said of keeping the brain.

        Dr. John D. Adams, a forensic pathologist from Maryland who often testifies as an expert in court cases, said that is correct. Formaldehyde preserves brain tissue and holds it together so a proper examination can take place, he said.

        That's not good enough for Mr. Pruitt.

        “The shock factor was that no one even asked, that no one told the family that the brain was being held,” Mr. Rubenstein said. “They used her brain for their purposes. The neurological conference was convened for their purposes, not her's.”

        Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune agrees there is a problem. He said the family should have been notified.

        “This is an ugly case,” Mr. Portune said. “What's going on at the Coroner's Office, and what's it going to take to make sure this type of stuff won't continue?” Mr. Portune said.

        Dr. Schultz said Ohio law allows a coroner to perform autopsies without consent. And he said explaining the autopsy procedure is often traumatizing to family members.

        “Would it be more caring and professional to call them up and say we're going to be saving their loved one's brain?” Dr. Schultz asked. “That would hurt them more. To do that makes things worse.”

        Mr. Rubenstein doesn't buy that. He said the coroner's office has a moral obligation to explain to families what happens to a loved one's organs.

        “Who appointed these people overseer of people's emotions?” Mr. Rubenstein asked. “This is outrageous.”

        The autopsy was performed to find out if Ms. Pruitt's frail health led to the stroke, or if a fall during which she suffered a broken arm was the cause. The autopsy found that the fall was the culprit.

        “All the good that was done by the autopsy was eradicated by the deception used in not disclosing the facts about her remains,” Mr. Rubenstein said.

        The coroner's office has been a lightning rod for controversy in the past year.

        Last month, a jury convicted photographer Thomas Condon and former deputy coroner Dr. Jonathan Tobias of taking unauthorized photos of autopsied bodies posed with inanimate objects.

        The pair will be sentenced Dec. 13.

        Last fall, the county settled a $5 million lawsuit for extraction of corneas without proper consent. That case dates back to the 1980s, when Frank Cleveland was coroner.


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