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Cadaver scandal has local tissue recipients worried

Jul 2, 2006 |

It started in 2004 when New York City Police Department Detective Patricia O'Brien responded to a complaint from a funeral director in Brooklyn. The director claimed the parlor's previous owner had stolen down payments for funerals.

Once inside the funeral parlor, O'Brien sensed something worse. She was surprised to find an embalming room that looked more like an operating room, with a steel table and bright overhead lights. When she reviewed old files, she found the names of biomedical companies. She later Googled the names and learned each was involved in tissue transplants.

O'Brien had gone into the investigation thinking she was dealing with a financial situation, but instead stumbled upon a scandal so grotesque it reads like a real-life sequel to "Frankenstein."

Local connection

The fall-out from a scheme in which a New Jersey tissue-recovery firm that harvested body parts from cadavers that were too old or too sick has stretched thousands of miles, reaching halfway across the country to Naperville.

By bribing funeral directors and forging documents, authorities charge that Biomedical Tissue Services stole tendons, bones, heart valves and other tissues then sold them for use in patients, some of whom developed health complications from the tainted tissue.

One of those patients was Naperville resident Richard Castello, 55. Castello had a simple hernia procedure in February 2005 that turned horribly wrong due to a skin graft reinforcement with diseased tissue from BTS.

Castello developed severe infections from the tissue, necessitating its removal.

"It's just been horrific," Castello said.

By the time a letter from the University of Chicago Hospitals where he received the skin graft reached Castello a year later, the afflicted tissue had mixed with other tissue.

"It was fused into me, especially after a year," Castello said.

Doctors performed the operation, but they were unlikely to have removed all the tissue, he said.

"They don't know if they have it all out," Castello said. "I don't know what's going to happen to me."

Legal action

Across the country, lawsuits have been filed by people who say they became infected by the use of bad body parts. On Wednesday, Castello, who still has to undergo blood tests, filed a lawsuit in the Cook County Circuit Court against BTS. The lawsuit also named as defendants the company's founder, Michael Mastromarino, a former dentist; and Life Cell Corp., which distributed a product made from the tainted tissue.

"It was a major, major problem for him," said Howard Schaffner, his lawyer. "It had grown into the surrounding tissue."

Schaffner has another client who last week filed a lawsuit against BTS and companies distributing a spinal graft at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. Adeeb Yousif, 49, claims to have gotten hepatitis from the graft.

The lawyer said he may also soon have a third client with a similar complaint.

"This is absolutely incredible that this is going on," Schaffner said. "You'd think there would be safeguards in place that would have prevented this from occurring."

Another local case

A 58-year-old Naperville man received a bone graft with bone from BTS. The man, who asked that his name not be used, went in for a molar removal at Ronald Freeman's oral surgery practice in Downers Grove and came out with potentially damaging bone plugging a hole in his jaw.

The oral surgeon asked him whether he would like to pay $40 to fix the canyon in his jaw from the surgery.

"It was just a little packet of bone," he said. "They put it in and stitched it up."

He received an alarming letter in the mail afterward that alerted him to the possible danger he may have been in.

He immediately had a blood test done, but didn't receive the results until after two to three months of anxious waiting. The results were negative as to any disease or infection.

At the time, he was told that it was highly unlikely that anyone had been infected or harmed. When he heard about the Castello case, though, he grew wary.

Now he plans to go back for more tests.

"This is really unsettling," he said. "Now I have to question whether one blood test is enough."

The man said he does not hold the oral surgeon's office at all responsible.

"I'd go back to him in a minute," he said. "I don't think he had any inkling that he wasn't being given properly cared for materials."

Extent unknown

BTS sold about 25,000 tissue samples to processors and distributors, with the tissues going to all 50 states.

Edward Hospital in Naperville did not receive any of the tainted materials, Brian Davis, Edward vice president of marketing, said in February. Edward's transplants come exclusively from the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network in Elmhurst.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into the scam. It discovered that the tissue could have been implanted into patients between early 2004 and September 2005.

Because of screening techniques, most tissue from BTS was unlikely to be infected, the FDA reported.

All tissue still in inventory from the firms supplied by BTS has been recalled, the FDA said.

The FDA recommends that patients who may have been affected be tested for HIV-1 and 2, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and syphilis.

Criminal charges

Authorities say Biomedical Tissue Services secretly carved up hundreds of cadavers among them, that of the host of "Masterpiece Theatre," Alistair Cooke without the families of the deceased knowing about it. They then peddled the pieces on the lucrative body parts market.

Criminal cases are pending against funeral homes across the country, and in New York prosecutors have charged two BTS officials with various crimes. Employee Lee Cruceta is free on $500,000 bond. His name is on papers indicating that he was the one who conducted interviews with family members of the deceased interviews that authorities say never took place.

Mastromarino, 42, remains free on $1.5 million bail after pleading not guilty to body stealing, forgery, grand larceny and other counts. If convicted, he faces as much as 25 years in prison.

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