Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Airport Evidence are Heads

by Andrea Campbell

I always hate it when Arkansas has some strange news story ongoing. The state has a not so great redneck stigma to overcome, as many states in the South often do. But this is just, well, darn weird y’all (and I say that with love because I’m not even from here originally). One news story was titled: “Coroner holds on to heads in boxes.” Another was: “Human heads go nowhere for now.” Puleese, there is no grammatically sufficient way to convey this headline (ouch).

Bad Labeling, Strange Cargo

Just recently, a Southwest Airlines employee questioned the freight shipment documents for containers that were being sent from Adams Field in Little Rock and posted for Fort Worth, Texas. Yes, there were human heads in boxes at Little Rock Airport, lots of them. The Associated Press reported: “Officials say a Southwest Airlines worker stumbled across a few boxes of human heads at the Little Rock, Ark., airport.” How on earth do you stumble upon this, you ask?

Apparently the heads were being shipped by JLS Consulting of Conway, Arkansas, and the containers were brought in by General Delivery of Little Rock. But when they reached the Southwest Airlines cargo office, the deliveryman said he didn’t know what they contained. Okay, what do airlines ask you when you check baggage? You know, the “are you traveling with …” questions, and, "... did anyone give you an unknown package” speech. 

So you know this questionable freight answer is not going to fly, literally. And the airline's employees know the drill: in 2009, Southwest Airlines moved 182 million pounds of cargo. So the airline agent did what they're supposed to do and opened the containers. The agent found red bio-hazard bags and heads wrapped in absorbent pads. According to the airline's company spokesperson, Chris Mainz, the company wisely refused to ship them airfreight because they were packaged and labeled incorrectly. And he called the police. Enter one of our state’s coroners, Pulaski County’s Garland Camper.

Over to the Morgue

Camper took possession of the heads and had them transported to the county morgue, where they’ve been since June 9. There are between 40 to 60 whole and partial heads.

The shipment was bound for a Fort Worth medical laboratory that uses them for a continuing education program for doctors, said JLS founder Janice Hepler.

And Camper replied, “I’m not just going to release a bucket of heads to go across the country without verifying that these were indeed lawfully obtained.” The specimens were in three rubber containers.

The hang-up continues because Coroner Camper says he hasn’t been able to verify the information—the company can’t accurately describe the heads and there are inconsistencies. Hepler is cooperating and understands; she says nothing is wrong, that they see the coroner’s point of view, and they'll eventually present proper documentation.

Caution for Good Reason

Camper told reporters that in his 24 years with the coroner’s office, this was the first time he knew of a shipment of bodies being stopped. "We've come to the conclusion that there is a black market out there for human body parts for research or for whatever reason," Camper told NBC. "We just want to make sure these specimens here aren't a part of that black market and underground trade."

While the heads were donated to science by an undisclosed organization—the Medtronic project—their spokesman, Brian Henry, said the company uses the specimens for physician education and training and in the development of new surgical tools. He also talked about a similar holdup a few years ago involving incorrect labeling. He probably shouldn’t have shared that.

Practice Called into Question

Okay, if you’re in the business of shipping body parts, why aren’t you getting it right? The coroner had every reason to be suspicious and was just performing his due diligence. Henry remarked, “We certainly expect our suppliers to adhere to the required processes to safely ship or transport specimens,” adding that the company would “work with our suppliers to make sure that all future orders are properly labeled.”

Ethical Lapses and Administrative Mistakes

It just makes someone reconsider donating their body to science, now doesn’t it? (That and the horrible movie “Pathology,” but let’s not go there.) Still, federal law prohibits buying or selling body parts. Companies can charge for transporting body parts, but people, you must get it right. I mean, there is a certain amount of decorum here. While I'm sure anatomical materials are shipped frequently, I don’t think the public wants to hear about snafus in this regard.

There have always been horror stories and jokes told about human remains, but no one wants their loved one to be the subject of the story, now do they? Mary Roach, author of the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, thinks that good science outweighs any taboos we may feel. She writes: “… being carved into bits and chunks and shipped to a dozen different universities and institutions seems no more distasteful than decomposing in the dark underground or being burned to a char in a crematory retort. I'm all for post-mortem adventure and travel. (I'm told that if you donate your brain to the Harvard Brain Bank, for instance, it rides up front in the cockpit on the plane to Boston.)”

The Pro Camp and Cautions 

A website called Donating Your Body to Science has an article called “The Ultimate Donation: How to Give Your Body to Science and Keep It Safe,” by the New York Times' Tara Parker-Pope, and she says that bodies donated to science have helped create crash-test dummies and safer cars, protective gear for soldiers, and a better understanding of numerous diseases.

But she also cautions that: “… potential donors should also ask what happens to a body if a university doesn't need it, and whether auditing systems are in place to track how the body is used. … potential donors and family members should ask what happens to a body when the research is complete? Many medical schools cremate the bodies. Some hold memorial services, and family members may be allowed to attend. A few universities, such as Wayne State, promise to return remains to family members.”

Mr. Henry has since told reporters he believes the heads, which he described as “four cranial samples and 40 temporal lobes,” were mislabeled by the vendor, causing the mix-up.

Notes: Southwest flies to 69 cities in 35 states.
Donating your body to science:
TSA travel info:
Video and update on the Southwest story:

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