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Body donated to science dissected in front of paying audience at Portland hotel – oregonlive.com

The body of a 98-year-old man who died of COVID-19 was dissected in front of a paying audience inside a downtown Portland hotel last month — after his wife thought she donated his body to science. Photo by Dan Gleiter for PennLive.com.Dan Gleiter for PennLive.com
UPDATED: The story was updated to correct the name of the hotel where the event was originally scheduled. That hotel was Courtyard Portland City Center. An earlier version inaccurately stated it was Courtyard Portland Downtown/Convention Center.
The body of a 98-year-old man who died of COVID-19 was dissected in front of a paying audience inside a downtown Portland hotel last month — after his wife thought she donated his body to science.
Seventy people gathered inside a meeting room at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront — some paying up to $500 a ticket — to watch the autopsy of David Saunders, who lived in Louisiana with his 92-year-old wife until he died from the coronavirus.
Kimberly DiLeo, Multnomah County’s chief medicolegal death investigator, said she contacted the Portland Police Bureau and Oregon Medical Board before the Oct. 17 event to warn them about the potentially illegal autopsy.
Weeks later, county officials are reviewing laws to see if any were broken.
DiLeo said the way Saunders’ body was handled could be considered abuse of a body, a Class B felony in Oregon.
But Lt. Nathan Sheppard, a Portland police spokesperson, said detectives consulted with the Oregon Department of Justice, Oregon State Police and Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and determined no crimes were committed during the autopsy.
He said civil laws may have been violated, including those that forbid certain postmortem examinations of bodies and place restrictions on the disposition of unclaimed bodies.
Only private citizens, not governmental agencies, can press civil claims.
DiLeo said in her 20 years of working as a death investigator, she has never seen anything like the event.
“It’s devastating to families,” DiLeo told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “On top of grieving the death of their loved ones, they have to deal with the fact that their loved one was desecrated, and that’s the last memory that they have.”
WIFE BELIEVED BODY WOULD BE USED FOR RESEARCH
When Saunders’ wife donated her husband’s body to Med Ed Labs, she recalls she was told the Las Vegas-based company would use his body for research and return his cremated remains in an urn.
She had no idea his body would wind up being dissected at a hotel in front of a paying audience, DiLeo said.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s horrible, unethical, and I just don’t have the words to describe it,” Elsie Saunders, the wife of David Saunders, told Baton Rouge-based newspaper The Advocate. “I have all this paperwork that says his body would be used for science — nothing about this commercialization of his death.”
But media company Death Science bought Saunders’ body from Med Ed Labs for use in a “Cadaver Lab Class” held during the Oddities and Curiosities Expo, an annual traveling event marketed toward “lovers of the strange, unusual and bizarre.”
DiLeo said the event was initially scheduled to be held at the Courtyard Portland City Center, but hotel staff canceled it after she called them. Kelly Bajorek, a spokesperson for Sage Hospitality Group, which owns the hotel, also confirmed it was originally scheduled there and was canceled prior to the event.
The venue was then changed to the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront hotel, which went ahead with the event despite DiLeo’s concerns, DiLeo said.
Death Science founder Jeremy Ciliberto said in a statement Wednesday that he purchased Saunders’ body from Med Ed Labs and that the company told him it had done a serology test on the body to rule out any infectious diseases.
He said Med Ed Labs did not tell him Saunders died of COVID-19.
DiLeo said Saunders’ COVID-19 diagnosis could have put anyone who was near his body at risk, as viral genetic material can be present on a body weeks or more after death.
Greg Clark, the owner of a Baton Rouge funeral home that handled Saunders’ body before it was donated to Med Ed Labs, said his staff was shocked by what happened.
“We are extremely saddened for the loss of the widow and what she is going through,” Clark told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Tuesday. He declined to comment further.
Ciliberto apologized for “undue stress” the event caused Saunders’ family and said Death Science would no longer work with Med Ed Labs.
“Death Science is currently conducting an internal review to create stronger vetting processes when partnering with future businesses and organizations,” Ciliberto said.
He said that while Death Science helped organize, promote and sell tickets for the event, Med Ed Labs sold the cadaver, provided the anatomist and secured the venue.
Hotel staffers were also aware of the planned autopsy, Ciliberto said, and they helped move the cadaver and position the operating table, lighting and seating on the day of the event.
Martin McAllister, the hotel’s general manager, contradicted Ciliberto’s version of events in a statement Thursday.
“Our hotel team was grossly misled by the client about the nature of this event,” McAllister said. “We understand the public’s concerns about the activities that transpired, and we are reviewing our process for vetting medical event inquiries in light of this situation.”
Med Ed Labs also said it was misled, claiming in a statement provided Friday to The Oregonian/OregonLive that Death Science “deceived us repeatedly stating the donor they requested would be utilized solely for educational anatomical dissection instructing academic students, paramedics, and personnel within forensic pathology fields.”
Med Ed Labs solicits whole body donations “for the education and training of medical device companies and medical providers,” according to its website. It does full blood serology and COVID-19 testing on donated bodies, the company’s statement said.
“We had absolutely no prior knowledge that any donor provided by our network of surgical facilities would be used as part of the ‘Oddities Expo’ and explicitly no knowledge that people would be paying to attend a show featuring one of our donors,” Med Ed Labs said in the statement.
The Oddities and Curiosities Expo did not respond to a request for comment.
A second Cadaver Lab Class scheduled to take place on Halloween in Seattle was reportedly canceled before it could take place.
BODY MISHANDLED, OFFICIAL SAYS
DiLeo said Saunders’ body was mishandled on the day of his autopsy.
Anyone interacting with a body during an autopsy or death investigation must wear personal protective equipment, including a medical gown, face mask, eye protection and gloves, DiLeo said.
But in a video taken at the Portland event by KING-TV, which first reported about the event and ensuing fallout, a person wearing only wrist-length gloves, a face mask and glasses can be seen handling Saunders’ body. Attendees are shown gathering closely around the operating table, and one attendee wearing only rubber gloves and a face mask is shown leaning over the cadaver and touching it.
DiLeo also said autopsies and death investigations must be done by people with valid licenses or certifications.
Colin Henderson, a retired University of Montana anatomy professor who performed the autopsy, does not have an active license to practice medicine in Oregon, according to the Oregon Medical Board website. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Med Ed Labs did not identify Henderson by name in its statement but said a certified anatomist handled the dissection and that all protocols and procedures for handling Saunders’ body “with utmost respect” were followed.
That included, according to Med Ed Labs, “limiting exposure of the donor to what (the anatomist) was led to believe were pre-health science students majoring in the health professions recommended by faculty advisors to attend the anatomical dissection.”
The company statement said mock surgeries and other training events for medical professionals are “globally held in hotel meeting and convention rooms” and that “the anatomist recognized the Marriott as such and presumed it was an invited attendee event.”
DiLeo said she isn’t sure how Ciliberto, who has no professional background in medicine or death investigations, was allowed to purchase the body from Med Ed Labs.
Ciliberto — who has a podcast and YouTube and TikTok channels dedicated to his interest in “death science” — said the Cadaver Lab Class was meant to be “educational” and increase interest in science, technology, engineering and medical professions.
But DiLeo said the event was harmful to the scientific community and Saunders’ wife, who asked Med Ed Labs to return her husband’s body to Louisiana instead of cremating him because she no longer trusts the company will send her the correct remains.
Med Ed Labs said it has returned Saunders’ body to his family’s funeral home of choice.
Multnomah County officials will work to enact legislation that would prevent similar events from being held if current laws are inadequate, DiLeo said.
“It’s very difficult for families,” she said. “It discourages people from donating their bodies to science, and it may also give them a lack of trust in the death investigation profession.”
— Catalina Gaitán; find them on Twitter @catalinagaitan_
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