Updated: Feb. 7, 2016 at 10:30 p.m.
Eileen Kostaris, a Maryland resident, was shocked Thursday morning when she received a call from a faculty member at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences telling her she may not receive her grandmother’s remains.
Her grandmother, who died last spring, is one of 50 people who donated their bodies to research at GW and remain unidentified. The school’s dean announced last week, following repeated requests from The Hatchet, that the body donor program was shut down after remains were misidentified and may not be returned to families.
“I was speechless,” Kostaris said. “I can’t be angry about it because it is done. There is nothing I can do to change it.”
Similar incidents have not been publicly revealed at other medical schools in recent years, and staff involved in similar programs said they have safeguards in place to protect against a similar situation.
The program – one of 130 in the country – was housed in the department of anatomy and regenerative biology in SMHS. The program accepted cadavers of individuals who wished to donate their bodies to train medical students. In the program, like at those across the country, the remains of body donors are cremated after their use and families that request remains are sent ashes.
Donations to the program increased by 80 percent between 2012 and 2014. In 2014, officials said the total number of donors on their list topped about 1,800, after an increase of 800 new donors in two years. Generally, less than 1 percent of the population donates their bodies to science.
SMHS Dean Jeffrey Akman said in a statement Friday that medical school officials learned last fall the management of the program was not fulfilling the standards that “donors and their families deserve and expect, nor what I would expect as dean.” He said officials then stopped accepting donations and began an internal review of the program.
“It is with deep regret that I report that, despite exhaustive efforts, we have been unable to make a positive identification of certain donor bodies,” Akman said in a statement.
The individual responsible for managing the program is no longer employed by the University, he said. Akman did not name the individual.
Notifying donor families
Akman said that the families of the donors have remained the priority, and officials are working with the families who “may be affected by the program irregularities.” He said in an email the school has been working to reconcile the records and privately answer questions from family members.
Akman said the medical school has contracted an outside laboratory to use advanced technology to match the DNA of donated bodies with DNA of family members, if those family members choose to provide samples.
Kostaris, who received the call about her grandmother last week, said she planned to hold a memorial service once she received her grandmother’s remains, but is now unsure if her grandmother’s ashes will ever be returned.
“They said that if I still wanted the remains back, there would be a company that would do DNA testing and they would try to match it up, but that was not guaranteed,” Kostaris said.
Kostaris said that donating was important to her grandmother because her grandfather had also donated his body to GW’s program years ago, and Kostaris had already received his remains. She added that her grandparents were “lifetime Washingtonians” and had lived in Foggy Bottom in their later years.
While the program was in place, GW medical students and faculty took part in an annual ceremony to honor the donors. Family members released butterflies to honor the lives of donors at the ceremony, according to a University release.
The future of the program
Akman said the school’s anatomy students will continue their studies using bodies the program has already received. He added that the number of bodies the University takes in varies each year, but typically students use 30 to 40 bodies a year, and bodies remain in the program for up to five years.
Akman said in an email that individuals who have signed up to donate their bodies in the future are in the process of being notified of the program’s closure.
Multiple professors in the GW anatomy department declined to comment.
SMHS spokeswoman Anne Banner said that Akman met with the anatomy department and students prior to releasing his statement to SMHS students, faculty and staff.
Banner said there are processes in place at GW’s body program to track the bodies, but declined to provide details.
The GW body donation website recently posted that interested donors can consider other local anatomical donation programs like Howard University, Georgetown University and Donate Life Maryland.
Hans Thewissen, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the Northeast Ohio Medical University Body Donation Program, said in the absence of cadavers, students can be trained through alternative methods.
Still, he said, alternatives that involve 3D glasses and computer programs do not give students the same hands-on experience.
Thewissen said he wants students to think of the cadavers as “their first patient.” He said that working with the cadavers allows medical students to understand that the work they do affects people they don’t know, like the families of their patients.
“The person on this table deserves respect and has a whole family behind them,” Thewissen said. “The family is worried about what happens with their loved one and expects some closure that they might not have had.”
How body donation programs keep track of donors
Professors who work with body donation programs at other schools said their staff safeguards against mistakenly identifying bodies or being unable to identify bodies by keeping all identification information with the body at all times.
Thewissen said staff label body bags, identify bodies with a number in their system and follow strict procedures like sending only a few bodies at a time to the crematoriums.
“Those bodies don’t move. They stay at their table,” Thewissen said. “There are practices that are used by crematoriums to make sure that no one switches this body with that body.”
Mark Zavoyna, the operations manager at the Anatomical Donor Program at Georgetown University, said there is a “multi-level identification process” when bodies come in and that staff there have never had an issue with identification.
“It is a heavy metal tag so that we can identify that the person assigned that number when they arrived at our front door is the same person whose cremated remains we are handing back to the family,” Zavoyna said. “It is truly fail-safe.”
Gina Burg, the director of the body donation program at University of Cincinnati, said the program has a system with four checkpoints to ensure that an identification number follows the cadaver from the beginning to the end of the process.
She said the program had about 480 bodies last year.
“We have a good system,” Burg said. “There really should never be a reason to have an issue or an error with any numbers or record keeping at all.”