April 10, 2005 in City

King County faces claim regarding brain harvesting

Gene Johnson Associated Press

SEATTLE – A North Carolina woman has filed a $500,000 claim against King County, alleging that its medical examiner’s office harvested her dead brother’s brain for research without permission seven years ago.

The claim, the first step toward suing the county, is the first legal action in Washington state concerning a brain-collection program at the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Md. Lawsuits have already been filed in Maine alleging that brains were taken there without full consent.

“I was just horrified at this,” the woman, Bobbi Amaker of Fayetteville, N.C., said Friday. “You have to obtain consent from people to do things to the body.”

The nonprofit Stanley institute awarded the King County Medical Examiner’s Office in Seattle $147,500 a year from 1995-2002, and $204,000 in 2003, to hire a pathologist and technical support to provide brain and other tissue from the bodies of schizophrenic or bipolar people to its laboratory, which researches mental illness and provides brain tissue samples to other researchers worldwide.

Over the course of the grant, which ended in mid-2004, the office provided Stanley with 255 brains, one of which was that of Bradley Gierlich, Amaker’s brother, who died in October 1998, said James Apa, a spokesman for the county health department. Apa acknowledged that the county reviewed 186 cases of brain harvesting from 1998 to 2004, and Gierlich’s was the only one for which the medical examiner’s office could not find a written consent form.

The office did find, however, a record of a follow-up interview with Gierlich’s aunt a month or so later to determine more information about his mental condition – and that interview would never have been conducted had the office not believed it had consent, Apa said.

“We do not have the consent form on file,” Apa said. “It appears there was a misunderstanding with the family. The medical examiner made several attempts to contact the family to express our regret.”

Apa said he could not comment on the claim itself or whether the county intended to pay it.

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