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The Organ Grinder

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Gallucci’s defense that others had done the forging might be more convincing if virtually all the documents had not been forged. It also doesn’t help that the D.A.’s office claims to have found Mastromarino’s handwriting all over them. His business was illegitimate from the start, says Hanshaft, the assistant D.A. “Whatever they say, ultimately the tissue-bank director is responsible.”

But there’s plenty of responsibility to go around. The temptations and hazards of harvesting from funeral homes are all rather obvious, and yet the government had allowed it there, the tissue companies had bought from there, and no one had inspected vigorously enough to catch the violations.

The FDA, the New York State Department of Health, and RTI all declined to be interviewed, but in public statements, the industry tried to allay the public’s fear. The FDA said that it and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “believe the risks from these tissues are low.” RTI held them to be practically nil.

If there was anything good in the news, says the AATB’s Rigney, it was that Mastromarino’s company was dealing with AATB-accredited banks, “and so the tissue was treated.” Alistair Cooke’s bones had been shipped to RTI, and RTI has BioCleanse, which the company claims is the only tissue-sterilization process that “eliminates viruses, bacteria, fungi and spores from tissue without compromising the structural or biomechanical properties.”

Entering the “automated multi-step cleansing process,” bones are vacuumed clean of all “blood, lipids and marrow.” “Chemical sterilants then completely penetrate the bone … to eliminate pathogenic organisms including HIV, hepatitis B and C … The final step removes germicides, leaving the tissue biocompatible” and “consistently white.”

Cooke and the others, emerging from that, would be nothing to fear. BioCleanse washed away the rot. It was the giant washing machine at the end of the conveyor belt that allowed people to be recycled—the dead to return to life, and the living to depend on the dead. “When implanting biologics,” CEO Brian Hutchison wrote in an open letter on safety, “ultimately, the level of risk any patient faces depends on the method of processing.” RTI is the only processor in operation that can claim to “eliminate the risk,” he wrote. And Mastromarino was not oblivious to this. If he had worked fast and loose, it was perhaps for the same reason that RTI and the FDA didn’t notice. There was a need for tissue, and as Gallucci says, “He knows that the tissue those people have will never lead to them getting disease.”

The case has yet to go to trial, but so far there have been no confirmed instances of infection from tissue harvested by Mastromarino’s company. Lawsuits touting diseased plaintiffs will be difficult to prove, and, defense attorneys agreed, so will criminal charges of reckless endangerment. Mastromarino is not a killer, just a scavenger.

For as long as there has been demand for corpses, ghouls have been skulking in cemeteries. And the demand continues. Owing in part to the product recall, 2005 “was a very challenging year for RTI,” Hutchison informed stockholders, but revenues for the first half of 2006 were up in the areas of spinal constructs, bone pastes, sports medicine, and general orthopedics. Slowdowns in recovery had diminished cardiovascular revenues, but “demand for these lifesaving implants remains high.”

It’s still too early to assess the effect of the scandal on supply, says Rigney, but the AATB is “extremely concerned.” He thinks potential donors understand that “something like this has never happened before,” but how he himself knows that, he can’t say. In the past, he admits, inspectors have generally trusted the authenticity of consent documents, not wanting to disturb the grieving a second time to confirm. “Now that kind of verification is going to have to take place, thanks to these guys,” Rigney laments.

Kittredge remains astounded that “at no point in the chain” did anyone ever make the phone call to her that would have revealed the forgeries. And she has been surprised by how disturbed the theft of her father’s body has left her; she can’t stop thinking about “my father with his legs cut off.”

RTI tells her that Cooke’s bones were not sold, but neither have they been returned, and Kittredge says she’d “like to know what they did with them.”

Her only good fortune is that her father had a book posthumously published this past spring. It’s nice to hear his voice again, remember him when he was whole and vital. Had he known what he was in for, “he would have been appalled,” Kittredge says. “It would have given him the shivers. He would have been just horrified. At the same time, he would have appreciated the Dickensian nature of it.”


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