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The Body Trade - Part 2: After buying part of a spine, reporter learns donor's tragic story

By BRIAN GROW and JOHN SHIFFMAN
Reuters

November 11. 2017 11:22PM
Richard Saunders and his wife, Angie Saunders, at their home in Townsend, Tenn. Richard Saunders holds the urn with their son Cody Dale Saunders' remains. (REUTERS/Wade Payne)
Body Trade series
The three-part series on the largely unregulated body broker industry ends Monday. To read the entire series, go to https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/usa-bodies/.

TOWNSEND, Tenn. - Cody Saunders was born in 1992 with failing kidneys and a hole in his heart.

When he died on his 24th birthday, he had endured 66 surgeries and more than 1,700 rounds of dialysis, his parents said. Some days, he hid the pain in upbeat selfies on Facebook. Other days, he shared an excruciating reality, posing in a hospital bed with bandages strapped across his scarred chest.

On his Facebook profile, Cody wrote that he was looking for a girlfriend who will accept "me for me."

"Y am I ugly," he posted on Christmas Day 2015.

Cody lived with his parents in an aged motorhome at an East Tennessee campground. When he was well enough, he worked on a farm with his father, feeding cattle, putting up hay, hauling molasses in a dump truck from one barn to another.

On August 2, 2016, Cody died after a heart attack on his way home from dialysis. Too poor to bury or cremate him, Cody's parents donated their son's body to an organization called Restore Life USA. The facility sells donated bodies - in whole or by part - to researchers, universities, medical training facilities and others.

"I couldn't afford nothin' else," father Richard explained.

The month after Cody died, Restore Life sold part of the young man's body: his cervical spine. The transaction required just a few email exchanges and $300, plus shipping.

Whether Restore Life vetted the buyer is unclear. But if workers there had verified their customer's identity, they would have learned he was a reporter from Reuters. The news agency was seeking to determine how easy it might be to buy human body parts and whether those parts would be useful for medical research. In addition to the spine, Reuters later purchased two human heads from Restore Life, each priced at $300.

The transactions demonstrate the startling ease with which human body parts may be bought and sold in the United States. Neither the sales nor the shipments violated any laws, say lawyers, professors and government officials who follow the issue closely. Although it's illegal to sell organs used for transplants, it's perfectly legal in most states to sell body parts that were donated for research or education. Buying wine over the Internet is arguably more tightly controlled, generally requiring at minimum proof of age.

To comply with legal, ethical and safety considerations before the purchases, Reuters consulted with Angela McArthur, who directs the body donation program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She took immediate custody of the spine and heads for Reuters, inspecting and storing them at the medical school.

McArthur said she was troubled by how easily the body parts were acquired and by the failure of Restore Life to perform proper due diligence.

"It's like the Wild West," McArthur said. "Anybody could have ordered these specimens and had them delivered to their home for whatever purpose they want."

McArthur examined the remains and the documentation included with them to determine how useful the parts would be for medical research. Her review was based on national safety and ethics standards she helped draft for the American Association of Tissue Banks, the American Association of Clinical Anatomists and the University of Minnesota.

She concluded that the medical history Restore Life provided was insufficient, and that the accompanying paperwork was sloppy and inadequate. For those reasons, the specimens did not meet standards for use at her university, she said.

"I haven't seen anything this egregious before," McArthur said. "I worry about the future of body donation and public trust in body donation when we have situations like this."

Angie Saunders holds a photo of her son Cody Dale Saunders in Townsend, Tenn., in July. (REUTERS/Wade Payne)

'Respect and dignity'

Contacted several months after the sales, Restore Life President James Byrd briefly explained his approach to business.

"Organizations like ours are what I consider accountable because, especially us, we have direct contact with the donor family," he said. "And there's a certain level of respect and dignity that is involved there because we have that personal relationship with them."

Byrd subsequently declined to be interviewed or answer written questions. But he emailed a statement in which he criticized Reuters for making the purchases.

"It's obvious your team at Thomson Reuters has no concern for those that seek help from our organization," he wrote. "You only wish to hurt those that need help the most."

The broker

Byrd, 50, has been in the body parts business for two decades. An East Tennessee native, the body broker recently was runner-up in a stand-up comedy contest called The Funniest Person in the Tri-Cities, the region surrounding Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol.

Before opening Restore Life, Byrd directed a nonprofit tissue bank called American Donor Services, then located near Memphis.

For several years, one of American Donor's chief orthopedic customers was a Texas firm affiliated with a company that distributed bone grafts made in part from human tissue. In 2005, according to sworn testimony in a civil lawsuit, American Donor shifted to a new chief orthopedic customer. The new buyer paid as much as $10,000 per donor, provided a $200,000 line of credit and began managing American Donor's financial affairs.

Byrd left American Donor Services a short while later, worked briefly for a vascular tissue bank, and then founded Restore Life in 2008. Based in Elizabethton, Tenn., Restore Life obtains bodies mostly from people in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. In return for body donations, Restore Life offers to pick up the deceased, cremate the unused remains for free and return them to the family.

In 2011, Byrd spoke publicly about Restore Life in a presentation to the commissioners in nearby Sullivan County. Officials there had grown frustrated by the increasing cost to taxpayers of cremating the indigent. According to a recording of that meeting, Byrd explained that he could help the county. He also noted that many families who donated to Restore Life did so for financial reasons: All expenses were covered, including cremation.

"We have become more a service for those indigent and pauper cases that can't afford a funeral," Byrd told the commissioners. "It's a perfect fit for situations where families don't have the funding or sometimes where it's left to the county for funding."

County Attorney Dan Street said a formal arrangement with Byrd was unnecessary because officials were merely referring the indigent to him, without any endorsement implied.

"This company is simply going to come and take these bodies," Street told commissioners. "We're simply getting out of the way and letting them do what private enterprise does best."

The donor

Angie Saunders recalls that during her pregnancy, there were no signs of trouble in her prenatal check-ups or ultrasound tests. But when Cody was born on Aug. 2, 1992, he arrived in grave distress.

He was moved from the county hospital to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, where he stayed three months. He was diagnosed with VATER Syndrome, a condition involving multiple birth defects.

Cody had so many dietary restrictions - no milk, no chocolate, no tomatoes, no salt - that he settled on dry Fruit Loops as his go-to meal. For dessert, he took a couple of bites from a stick of butter.

Cody needed dialysis three times a week, four hours per session. Given her son's needs, his mother couldn't work much. His father told every employer upfront that his child came first.

"Half of his life, if it wasn't the hospital, it was dialysis," Richard said. "I went through a lot of jobs." When Cody was about 9 years old, his parents said, he received a kidney transplant that transformed him. It freed him from constant dialysis. He learned to swim and had more time for school.

"I wouldn't say he was normal," Richard said, "but at least we wasn't having to be tied down as much."

The new kidney lasted a little more than five years, and when it failed, Cody was rushed by helicopter to the hospital for a monthlong stay, his parents said. Dialysis began anew.

Cody left school in the 11th grade. His parents say he was reading at a second-grade level. He worked on farms as often as he could with his dad, and in the winter they sold firewood. He chewed Skoal tobacco and played pool at a local club.

In his final years, Cody grew sad and lonely. His parents noticed, and so did his friends on Facebook. He was weary of the pills, the dialysis, the hospitals and the constant reminders of what he could and could not do, his parents said.

"I think not just his body was tired, but his whole mind was done," his father said.

"He wasn't scared," his mother said. "He was ready." Cody's heart stopped on his birthday, Aug. 2, 2016. Not long afterward, Restore Life collected his body.

A son's fate

As is customary in the body broker industry, Restore Life did not include the names of the people who donated the body parts it sold to reporter Grow - just each person's age and date of death.

Reuters could not identify the individuals whose heads were shipped. But at just 24, Cody Saunders died so young that the news agency was able to identify him after searching through obituaries in southern states.

With his parents' permission and participation, Reuters hired a forensic lab to perform a DNA test. It confirmed that the cervical spine came from Cody.

In late August, Grow returned to visit Richard and Angie Saunders to tell them what Reuters had learned: Restore Life had dissected their son's body and sold part of his spine.

For a few moments, Cody's parents sat silently.

Angie stared into the distance. Richard looked at the ground.

Then Angie spoke. "I thought they was just taking skin samples," she said and began to cry.

Richard tried to comfort her. "It's over with, honey."

"I didn't want no more surgeries," she said.

"At that time, we did not have no choice," Richard reminded her. "But you have to look at it this way: Like you kept saying, if it's going to help somebody else."

"I know, I know."

The couple said nothing more for nearly half a minute. Finally, Richard turned to Angie. This part of their lives was "done and over," he told her.

Had they known Cody would be dissected, his parents said, they would not have donated his body. Cody, they felt, already had endured too many surgeries during his short life. They didn't want, or expect, anyone to "cut on him" in death, Richard said.

And yet, he added, "I couldn't afford to do nothing else, so I felt like that was the best option we had."

Richard asked whether Restore Life used any other parts of Cody's body. The reporter said he didn't know. Brokers typically don't disclose that information. Richard said he doubted he would seek answers from Restore Life. "I don't blame them," he said. But he appreciated learning what happened to Cody's remains.

"Because we would have never known," he said.

Angie agreed. "We wouldn't have had a clue."

In October, in keeping with the family's wishes and at Reuters' expense, Cody's spine was cremated in Minnesota. Grow delivered the ashes to the Saunders family at their home in Tennessee.


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