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Jacob “Hammer” Sandersfeld was 21 years old when he was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer. For months, his friends and family members worked hard to collect money for his medical expenses.
Sadly, he lost his battle and passed away in the hospital a year later. His final wish was to donate his body to science.
Sandersfeld's family followed through with his wishes. They donated his body to the Biological Resource Center of Illinois (BRCIL) in June 2014.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Sandersfeld's mom, Dawn Carroll, submitted a lawsuit against the company this month.
The lawsuit alleges that BRCIL was “illegally collecting, harvesting, and trafficking [...] human body parts for profit.”
In an interview with Independent Journal Review, Carroll declined to comment on the lawsuit or how she learned about the company's illegal practices. But the grieving mom told IJR, “I would not donate a body to science.”
According to ABC 7, federal investigators conducted a raid of the Illinois facility in January 2015. During the raid, agents uncovered what they called an illegal “body broker” ring, where dismembered body parts were be stored in unsafe conditions and sold for profit.
ABC 7 reports that some of the dismembered parts were infected with HIV, hepatitis, and other illnesses, and were not properly stored.
Financial documents found at the location disclosed that the company regularly sold bodies for $5,000 and parts for hundreds of dollars.
After the raid, the FBI contacted some of the families of people who had donated their bodies to BRCIL. Since then, at least four families have submitted lawsuits in Cook County, Illinois, against the company.
The FBI also investigated two other partner facilities to BRCIL in Arizona and Michigan. NBC Chicago reports that all three locations have not reopened since the raids.
In a statement to ABC 7, a lawyer for BRCIL wrote that the findings made during the investigation were all legal:
“There is significant information missing from the affidavit that provides a fuller picture of the standards and practices employed by BRCIL. Those standards and practices are in line with industry standards.”
Martin A. Kramer, director of communications at Health Resources and Services Administration, told IJR that donated organs are heavily regulated but that there aren't any federal laws that regulate the donation of whole bodies.
Therefore, companies like BRCIL are typically regulated by state or local legislation:
“Donation of whole bodies for research is different than organ donation,” Kramer said. “To our knowledge, there is no federal oversight of whole body donation for research. In other words, the federal laws that govern organ donation do not apply to whole body donation.”
According to the Harvard Business School, an estimated 20,000 bodies are donated posthumously every year in the U.S.
Donated bodies are used to help with forensic study, medical training, and other research applications.
Andrew Corson, the director at the University of California, San Francisco, Willed Body Program, said in a recorded interview that donated bodies have contributed to major advances in science and health:
“It helps new medical students and new health care professionals with the very foundations upon which the rest of their knowledge will be built. Without it, the advances that we have, that we've seen over the past half century, could not exist. Though this is not directly contributing to a specific life saved, it's contributing to amazing advances in health care, which has saved millions of lives.”
As the Economist reports, there often aren't enough bodies to help with medical research and training. Once a body is donated, organizations and companies often partner with each other to try to ensure that the greatest need is met.
Author Mary Roach covered the topic of donated bodies and organs in her book “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”
Roach explained to IJR that in order to help with shortages, organizations often try to avoid designating how donated bodies will be used in their contracts:
"Part of the problem is that organizations aren't sure what the greatest need for donated bodies will be when you die.
Let's say you donate to a university and they don't have a need in the anatomy lab at that time, but the local nurses college has a shortage. They have an agreement to share surplus with each other, so you go there. This situation wasn't predicted when you signed the contract, but the university doesn't want to waste a donated body. That's a noble thing to do.
Most of these types of transactions are done above the board, but it leaves the door open for people who want to take advantage of the system."
When IJR contacted Roach, she wasn't familiar with the specific lawsuit against BRCIL. But she has come across a few stories similar to BRCIL's during her research.
In most of these cases, the sold bodies usually wound up in the hands of medical students, scientists, and professionals that needed them.
But the problem is that the company charges extraordinary processing fees to make a profit, sometimes from bodies that have been improperly stored.
While a few companies do profit from body donations, Roach said this kind of practice isn't commonplace:
“It's important to know that for every negative story about body donations, there are hundreds of thousands of positive stories about people who have donated their bodies to noble causes. There may be one, or two, sleaze balls in the industry who try to take advantage of the system to make a profit. But that happens in every industry.”
Roach encouraged people to read the fine print when they sign the contract to donate their body to science:
“Don't be afraid to call and ask questions. Read the contract so you know what you're signing up for. Most places will let you know what to expect. They aren't trying to hide anything — at least the good ones aren't — but they can’t predict what the possible need will be, say, 30 years down the road from now when you die.”
There are many organizations and businesses across the U.S. that accept donated bodies. Some places are specific on how the bodies will be used, while others are more vague.
It's unclear exactly what BRCIL communicated to families. But the Tribune reports that the man who owns the chain of body donation facilities known as International Biological is expected to go to trial in September for wire fraud, making false statements, and unsafely transporting hazardous materials.
In her lawsuit, Carroll states that her family was under the assumption that Sandersfeld's remains would be treated with respect and not sold for profit.
More than anything, Carroll feels betrayed by the company that profited on her son's remains.
She told IJR that the ill treatment of Sandersfeld's final wish tainted the memory of her beloved son: “We, as a family, have suffered enough.”
Editor's Note: This article was updated after publication.