Wednesday, March 15, 2006

You'll Want to Put that Sandwich Down

Despite frequent bouts of nausea and light-headedness, I just read "Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains," by Annie Cheney from cover to cover. What a fantastically morbid tale. Cheney blows the lid off the incredibly secret and sordid underbelly of the death business--not the most savory business to begin with. In a nutshell, there is a hugely lucrative trade in bodies and body parts that the less scrupulous members of medical and funeral communities have been unable to resist. Bodies, worth more in parts than whole, are carved up and sent all over the country for surgeons to practice new surgical techniques at weekend seminars and to tissue banks to meet the growing demand for reconstructive surgery. It gets better: having a surplus of cadavers through willed-body programs, medical schools sell them off to body brokers to generate income for their departments. These bodies can end up becoming crash test dummies for the automobile industry or used by the Army in land mine testing. Probably not what people have in mind when they will their body to their alma mater to further science.

The story comes out thanks to some whistleblowers, some honest people in the industry, and by accident. In 1986, UPS workers in Kentucky intercepted a leaking box to discover five human heads packed inside. Investigators tracked the source to an elderly ear, nose, and throat doctor in Philadelphia that had been trafficking in human body parts for the prior fifteen years. Apparently his secretaries worked upstairs from the waiting room, packing arms, heads and ears into shipping boxes.

As a teenager I worked in a health food store. One day, the owner of the store, who I can most generously describe as "eccentric," ordered me to use price tags to cover the past-due expiration dates on containers of hummus. I thought she had some nerve, considering she owned the only health food store around and had a steady stream of wealthy suburbanites clamoring for insanely marked-up wheatgrass juice and seitan. How greedy can you be? In protest, I quit on the spot. She replaced me immediately with a friend of mine. Jerk. There have also been times I have complied with what I felt were somewhat shady requests in the name of keeping a job, such as when I worked for a large utility company and was required to send fruit baskets to the secretaries of certain regulatory officials whose asses apparently needed kissing. But bubble wrapping heads? I think I would have to take a stand.

The idea that I, or someone I love could be carved up into pieces, chucked into a styrofoam cooler in the back of a rented Chevy Malibu and rolled out in front of a group of orthopedic surgeons in Miami to practice arthroscopic techniques in between rounds of golf is mightily disturbing. Yet I do expect that should I need knee surgery as a living person, that the surgeon I see will be well-trained in the newest, safest and least invasive techniques. Is this hypocrisy? Or just American customs, like it's fine to eat cows but not dogs? Hamburgers but not eyeballs? Most disturbing about this book is the deception, the blinding greed, and the complete lack of understanding about what it means to check the "donor" box. Like many others, I imagine that I am giving The Gift of Life to children with congenital heart defects or mothers of five on dialysis--not that I will end up sprayed over some godforsaken Army test site in the Mojave.

A scandal was recently uncovered in funeral homes across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida in which employees removed bones of the deceased to be tissue-banked and replaced them with PVC pipe. You won't be surprised to hear that their loved ones had not consented to this procedure.

The rock of the death business has been flipped over. Stay tuned and see what crawls out.

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