How Safe is America’s Donated Tissue Supply?

Wisconsin’s Bureau of Communicable Disease and Preparedness, Division of Public Health has just come out with a warning to all local health officers, tribal clinic directors and Division of Public Health regional offices.

An internal memo from the WI BCD states “[Biomedical Tissue Services, Ltd. (BTS) of Ft. Lee, NJ] used multiple funeral homes in New Jersey , New York State, and Pennsylvania to recover tissues between July 2002 and October 2005. It has been alleged that appropriate informed consent for donation from the next-of-kin was not obtained, and that consent documents and donor health history/risk assessment forms were falsified.”

In other words, BTS stole tissue from bodies from shady-dealing funeral homes, falsified the records that determine not only consent but medical history and suitability and then sold that tissue to several tissue processors and distributors including:

LifeCell Corporation of Branchburg, NJ(Which receives tissue from the Madison, WI office of Regeneration Technologies)
Lost Mountain Tissue Bank of Kennesaw, GA
Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas in Austin, TX
Tutogen Medical, Inc., of Alachua, FL
Regeneration Technologies, Inc., of Alachua, FL(With an office in Madison, WI)

The reason? PROFIT. Tissue banking is, underneath all the “warm fuzzies” that tissue banks try to create, a profitable industry. Bodies are reduced to parts sold for dollars and cents.

Abuses such as these will continue as long as there are profits to be made in the tissue banking business; profits that slip through the federal law prohibiting the sale of human body parts and prohibit tissue banks from sharing the profits with the donor families.

There are two issues here. First and foremost is the fact that unscrupulous funeral homes were working with BTS to perform these illegal recoveries but the second issue comes from another part of the Wisconsin Department of Health Memo.

It reads: “The Wisconsin Division of Public Health has learned from CDC and FDA that tissues from BTS have been distributed by various tissue processors to all 50 states. However, we have been unable to obtain a list of the Wisconsin facilities that received the tissues in question, and therefore do not know how many (if any) state residents may have been implanted with these tissues.”

How can the Wisconsin Division of Public Health not be able to obtain a list of the Wisconsin facilities that received the tissues in question? Tissue processors and distributors keep meticulous records (as required by various regulations from the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and organizational regulatory bodies such as the American Association of Tissue Banks), records including which donors and tissue procurement agencies tissue comes from. The records make it possible to trace end products right back to the tissue procurement agency it came from, the people that procured it and even the location in which the procurement took place.

Obtaining a list of the recipients in Wisconsin should be as simple as calling the tissue distributors and saying “give me a list of all the tissue you’ve sold in Wisconsin that came from BTS.”

Instead, the Wisconsin Department of Public Health sent a memo saying “To identify any cases of infection or disease that may be associated with these transplanted tissues, we are requesting that local health departments inquire about a history of tissue transplantation (involving surgeries since July of 2002) when investigating cases of hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV infection. If a history of transplantation is obtained, please contact Sheila Guilfoyle in the Bureau of Communicable Disease and Preparedness.”

In other words, only if a transplant recipient is later tested for and the test comes back positive for hepatitis B, C or HIV then the local health department should “inquire” about a history of tissue transplantation.

Cases such as this shouldn’t rely on incidental testing at a later date to identify at-risk or involved transplant recipients. Right now, hundreds or even thousands of transplant recipients are losing a lot of sleep wondering if they’ve been transplanted with these stolen tissue and if they’ll end up contracting potentially fatal disease from the transplant – and the best the State of Wisconsin can do is absolutely nothing but wait and see.

Even the tissue processors and distributors are taking more action than the State of Wisconsin – they’ve launched a recall of all of the tissue they’ve sold (or have in stock) that came from BTS.

Here’s my advice.

First, If you’ve received a tissue transplant involving skin, bone or tendon within the last four years, contact your physician and tell him or her that you’re worried that your tissue came from BTS. After all, you may be infected with any of a number of communicable diseases as a result and not even know it. Demand that your doctor research the transplanted tissue and don’t stop until you find out where it came from. And…get tested! HIV/Aids, hepatitis B or C, syphilis – all are possible to have contracted from the tissue (along with countless other bugs or diseases).

Second, contact the State of Wisconsin Department of Health and demand they do more than just “wait and see” – demand that they put in at least a little bit of effort to find out who received this tissue.

The FDA is saying that the tissues procured by BTS make up only a small portion of the tissue in the US supply and that infection risks are low. But, when you could be that 1 in 100, your risk is 100%.

The underlying problem with this and every other organ and tissue donation situation is profits. A human body could be worth up to $100,000 when all the transplantable parts are removed and sold. Greedy procurement agencies as well as tissue banks, funeral homes and the like are seemingly ready to gamble with your life to turn a buck.

Contact your legislators to demand more regulation of the tissue banking industry and demand that donor families receive a portion of the obscene profits tissue banks make from freely donated tissue. It’s time to make tissue banks accountable for the profits they reap (read a related Chris Truitt column here).

Lastly, contact the State of Wisconsin Public Health department and demand a full investigation. They can be reached at
Department of Health and Family Services 1 W. Wilson Street Madison, WI 53702
General Phone Number: (608) 266-1865, TTY Phone Number: (608) 267-7371.

Footnote: I gave the writer of the memo the chance to comment. His only response was “Mr. Truitt – I can confirm that the [memo you have obtained] was issued from our office at the Bureau of Communicable Disease and Preparedness, Wisconsin Division of Public Health, and was sent to local public health officials to ensure that any infections that may have resulted from these tissues are detected.”

More information on this topic can be obtained on the web at and

  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Technorati
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo Buzz
  • StumbleUpon

We’ll Share our Organs & Tissues; You Share the Fortune You’ll Make Off Them!

For as long as tissue banks have been in existence there has been a debate over which is a better steward of the gift; a for-profit agency or a not-for-profit agency.

At the heart of the debate is the fact that no donor family likes the idea that someone may be getting rich from the sale of their loved one’s organs and tissues. The family is donating the gifts for purely humanitarian reasons; their hope is that someone else’s life will be saved or at the very least made better by the gifts so graciously donated.

This is how my wife and I felt when we chose to donate our two-year-old daughter’s organs and heart valves on March 1st of 1999. At the time our number one goal was to create something positive from the death of our daughter; to help someone else live by giving our daughter’s organs and tissues. We simply assumed that whoever used our daughter’s gifts would be good stewards of the gifts meaning that they would be procured appropriately and distributed appropriately.

The University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic’s Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) harvested her liver, pancreas and intestines and Allograft Resources (which was a not-for-profit tissue procurement organization at the time) harvested her heart valves.

After our daughter’s death and subsequent donation we had the incredible chance to meet the recipient and her family. We were able to see first-hand the good that can come from organ and tissue donation. Our single goal was achieved; through our daughter’s gifts we helped save another family from going through what we were going through at that very moment – planning for the funeral of our baby girl.

I believed in organ and tissue donation so strongly that shortly after my daughter’s donation I was hired by Allograft Resources as a member of their procurement team. Over the years, though, Allograft Resources was essentially “bought” by the organization that processed the donated tissues that Allograft Resources recovered – Regeneration Technologies Inc. (RTI – a for-profit company). As Allograft Resources began changing hands, the focus of the “business” in my opinion began changing from helping donor families to helping the company’s bottom line.

Soon after the acquisition of Allograft Resources, RTI became a publicly traded company (RTIX). That is when things really started going down hill. For example LifeCell, a skin processing company, began handing out awards to the people that recovered the most skin per donor. Instead of being careful to follow the wishes of the family our procurement teams competed against each other to see who could recover the most skin. Donors were reduced to square footages of skin.

Another example of “beefing up the bottom line” was the introduction of “research” tissue procurement. Families are told that tissues not suitable for transplant may be suitable for use by researchers searching for cures for diseases and conditions. What the families weren’t told was that research tissues may include the procurement of an entire foot, an ear, a nose, a spine – virtually anything (especially if the donor was to be a direct cremation).

From what limited information I could gatheer, by the time a procurement team was done with a donor, the tissues could be sold for a total that sometimes topped $100,000. Tissue banks are tight-lipped about the actual sales value of human tissue.

I began investigating where the money trail led. The emotion behind this charged topic is simple: no donor family wants to think that some company executive is driving around in a Jaguar purchased with an exorbitant salary earned from the sale of donated organs and tissues. Unfortunately, though, that’s exactly what is happening.

In reviewing RTI’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings and stockholder reports the true magnitude of the money being earned by this one company alone is very obvious.In 2003 RTI listed net revenues at $75.5 million and in 2004 that number climbed to $92.7 million. In 2003 executive compensation packages added up to over $1.4 million dollars with the CEO earning over half a million dollars alone.

In 2005 available bonuses for the executives range from $250,000 for the CEO to $90,000 for the VPs and total $710,000 together. This is in addition to the 4% raise that was approved for each executive’s salary.

As if this wasn’t enough, RTI set up a “retention and severance agreement” designed to “maintain stability” following the company’s announcement that they’re exploring “strategic alternatives to enhance shareholder value”. The retention and severance agreement would come into play should the company be sold if the “strategic review” leads to the sale of the company.

Over $1.7 had been set aside to reward employees for staying with the new company as a retention bonus or to be paid as severance pay should they lose their job in the shuffle.
At the heart of the matter is one, simple fact – everyone is making money off the donated organs and tissues and not one cent finds its way back to the donor or donor family. Procurement teams are paid, the facilities where the procurements are taking place are paid, procurement agencies’ operating budgets are paid, shipping to processing labs is paid, processing costs are covered and the final cost to the end recipient is charged by the hospital who is charged by the processing lab for that particular tissue. Even the nurses and doctors in the transplant surgery are paid. Thousands of people make their livings (and damn good livings at that) off gifts so graciously donated by humanitarians. How is this fair?

There is a federal law on the books (the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of 1987) that makes it illegal to sell human organs and tissues but it does allow for the recovery of “necessary costs and fees” relating to the procurement, processing and transplanting of the donated tissues.

It is time that the greedy for-profit and not-for-profit organ and tissue banks stop hiding behind this law and start paying at least something back to the donor family.
Keep in mind; no donor family will ever say that they hoped to realize a financial gain by donating their loved one’s tissues. Everyone, like me, has deeply personal reasons for donating. However, that doesn’t mean that everybody but the family should make money from the gifts.

My proposal is simple; require tissue banks and organ procurement organizations to pay for an “average” funeral for the donor (with “average” taking into account the geographic and economic region’s average funeral costs). The family can choose a more elaborate funeral but the OPOs and tissue banks would only be required to pay out “average” costs. The family should also be given the opportunity to use the payout to fund any memorial or charity they wish (such as a bench in the park or donation to hospice care etc.).

This would end the hotly contested and often debated for-profit versus not-for-profit status. In the end, everyone in the business turns a profit off the gifts so graciously donated. It is only right that the family receive a portion to either cover the funeral or to be used charitably. Although it is a statement that you will probably never hear voluntarily from a donor family, if everyone else is making money from our loved ones’ gifts we deserve something too.

I challenge our representatives in congress to introduce legislation (it must be done at the federal level to counteract the federal law against selling human organs and tissues) to require tissue procurement organizations and organ procurement organizations to give the donor family a check for the amount of money the average funeral (and expenses) in the area costs. The family may either use it to fund the funeral or use it for charitable purposes (or both). This process should be facilitated by and administered by the funeral homes to avoid what will most certainly be the main thesis of those opposed to such a law – that families will kill off their family members for monetary gain. With the restrictions placed on the uses of the money and the funeral homes regulating where it goes this should be a moot point.

Click here to contact your congressional representatives and tell them to support legislation that would require organ and tissue banks to give a part of the profits they reap from the sales of donated tissues back to the donor families.

  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Technorati
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo Buzz
  • StumbleUpon

The Milwaukee Massacre

Some call it the “Milwaukee Massacre”. Others refer to it as the “bloodiest” or “most horrific” crime scene in recent history. What they are referring to is the murder of Charlie Young Jr. of Milwaukee, WI in late September of 2002.

Charlie Young was walking down the street when a 14-year-old boy encouraged a 10-year-old boy to throw an egg at Young. After being hit in the shoulder with the egg, Young grabbed the 14-year-old and punched him in the mouth, knocking out one of his teeth.

Another boy rushed in and hit Young over the head with a baby stroller and the fight was on. More than a dozen boys joined the melee, chasing Young down the street, eventually cornering him on a porch where they beat him with shovels, rakes, brooms, baseball bats and anything else they could get their hands on.

A few days later Charlie Young Jr. succumbed to his injuries and passed away in the hospital.

What does the family of Charlie Young Jr. of Milwaukee, WI see in all of this? A chance to stop someone else’s pain, a chance to help another walk and even a chance to save lives.
It never ceases to completely amaze me when I hear of families that, when faced with the sudden and unexpected death of their loved one especially due to heinous acts and horrific crimes, immediately choose to donate their loved ones’ eyes, tissues and organs.

Charlie’s family has suffered an unbelievable and agonizing loss. After having Charlie taken from them, though, the first thing that they think of is how to give even more. Faced with the gruesome details of a painful and horrific death caused by the carelessness, callousness and complete selfishness of their neighbors they turn around and offer their loved one’s life saving gifts to those around them, perhaps even to those same neighbors that caused the pain and suffering that they will endure for the rest of their lives.

As I think about the loss, the grief and the sorrow that Charlie’s family must be feeling and then think of how they chose to donate it truly takes my breath away. This is, in my book, the definition of ‘hero’ and the seed that lies at the very heart of humanity and of love.

The newspapers, television news personalities and elected officials will be talking about Charlie’s death for some time to come.

Some politicians will try to use Charlie’s murder as evidence of the need for “youth activities”. Others will use his death as a ‘case in point’ of the decline in two-parent homes and parenting skills. The police will use Charlie to show how an understaffed and under funded agency fails those it is supposed to protect as the mayor tries to pass it off as ‘just another incident’. Some in the neighborhood will see it as a ‘call to action’ while others will find it just one more reason to bury themselves deeper in their homes.

Yet amid all this political and well-publicized hype, Charlie’s family will only see sorrow and grief and loss. No amount of special funding, increased police involvement, increased neighborhood awareness, neighborhood center involvement, speeches or monologues by the talking heads will bring him back. Despite hearing the “answers” given by everyone around them they’ll only have questions, especially “why”. Why Charlie, why then and why that way.

But because of their selfless act and Charlie’s gifts someone else will finally have an answer – an answer to their prayers. Charlie’s gifts may help a young girl walk again, a middle aged man to perhaps feel the beat of a strong heart once more and an elderly woman may get her wish of having just a few more precious years to spend with her family.

To Charlie’s family: From out of the ashes of death and despair rises a rose made with the beauty of new life, seen by new eyes and scented with hope renewed. Don’t forget this rose. Your journey through the grief of Charlie’s death will be long and can seem like too much to bear. At those moments, though, just remember the lives Charlie has saved and the lives he’s made better by your choice to donate his precious gifts. He will live on forever as a hero in their eyes and in mine.

  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Technorati
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo Buzz
  • StumbleUpon