Woman Says ME Took Her Brother's BrainApr 10, 2005 | AP A North Carolina woman filed a $500,000 claim against King County on Friday, alleging that its medical examiner's office harvested her dead brother's brain for research without permission seven years ago.
The claim, the first step toward suing the county, is the first legal action in Washington state concerning a brain-collection program at the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Md. Lawsuits have already been filed in Maine alleging that brains were taken there without full consent.
"I was just horrified at this," the woman, Bobbi Amaker of Fayetteville, N.C., said Friday. "You have to obtain consent from people to do things to the body."
The nonprofit Stanley institute awarded the King County Medical Examiner's Office in Seattle $147,500 a year from 1995-2002, and $204,000 in 2003, to hire a pathologist and technical support to provide brain and other tissue from the bodies of schizophrenic or bipolar people to its laboratory, which researches mental illness and provides brain tissue samples to other researchers worldwide.
Over the course of the grant, which ended in mid-2004, the office provided Stanley with 255 brains, one of which was that of Bradley Gierlich, Amaker's brother, who died in October 1998, said James Apa, a spokesman for the county health department. Apa acknowledged that the county reviewed 186 cases of brain harvesting from 1998 to 2004, and Gierlich's was the only one for which the medical examiner's office could not find a written consent form.
The office did find, however, a record of a follow-up interview with Gierlich's aunt a month or so later to determine more information about his mental condition and that interview would never have been conducted had the office not believed it had consent, Apa said.
"We do not have the consent form on file," Apa said. "It appears there was a misunderstanding with the family. The medical examiner made several attempts to contact the family to express our regret."
Apa said he could not comment on the claim itself or whether the county intended to pay it. He emphasized that, contrary to a recent Seattle television news report, the medical examiner's office was not paid for the brains it collected and in no way profited from the program. The grant money merely covered the cost of the pathologist and technical support.
Gierlich, who was labeled mentally retarded as a child and began using drugs in early adulthood, died of a heroin overdose at age 41. Amaker, an occupational therapist who suspects her brother was actually autistic, said she did not learn his brain had been removed until she was contacted recently by a reporter from the Portland Press Herald in Maine long after she had her brother's remains cremated.
In Maine, a one-time state funeral home inspector was paid $1,000 per month by Stanley plus $1,000 per brain collected about $150,000 in all, a federal lawsuit has alleged. That lawsuit seeks class-action status for the families of 99 deceased Maine residents from whom brains were taken between 1999 and 2003.
That lawsuit contends that the inspector routinely approached survivors during a time of grief and requested the donation of tissue samples. Instead of samples, the lawsuit claims, entire brains were shipped to Bethesda.
Some Washington state residents have made similar complaints, though the King County Medical Examiner's Office maintains that it was clear the whole brain would be taken.
Avis Clark, of Vancouver, Wash., said Friday that she was contacted after her son, Duane Lee Clark, died at age 44. Duane had suffered from schizophrenia since he was a college freshman.
"I did receive a call asking me permission to take a sample," she said. "I was interested in finding a cure, so I gave them permission over the phone."
She said she didn't know if she would have given the same permission had she known they would take the whole brain. Nor had she ever heard that the brain was sent to a research facility on the East Coast.
In a statement on its Web site, Stanley said its brain collection was formed to help remedy a global shortage of human brain specimens, a shortage that had proved to be a serious hurdle in the understanding of mental illness.
"To our knowledge, the person obtaining consent explains the donation of the brain to the next of kin, and the consent forms have stated that the donation includes brain and other tissue, without limitation on the amount or size of donated tissue," the statement said.
Bill Lynn of Vashon Island said the medical examiner's office wasn't clear when it asked for permission to take the brain of his schizophrenic son, Gary, who died in November 1998.
"I assumed it would be the total brain. They wanted to examine it to see the effects of schizophrenia," Lynn said. "I said yes. I think Gary would have liked that, and that's why I gave permission."