Grief Counselors at Morgue Funded by Transplant Group


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Three counselors work around-the-clock to help people whose dead loved ones end up in the Oakland County Medical Examiner’s Office. But because the Ann Arbor-based Transplantation Society of Michigan funds the positions, the job description also includes encouraging survivors to allow tissue donation.

It’s one example of how the growing trade in body parts has led to close relationships between harvesters and medical examiners. Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, the Oakland County medical examiner, says his counseling program is cutting-edge and plans to tout its benefits in October at the annual National Association of Medical Examiners conference in Virginia.

“Our program is an opportunity for society to get better,” Dragovic said. “We have always made sure we would eliminate conflict of interest by ensuring that the interests of the public are primarily taken care of.” But in some cases, it’s a controversial partnership. “I don’t think it’s part of what a medical examiner should do,” said Dr. Werner Spitz, the Macomb County chief medical examiner. “I think it’s a conflict of interest.”

The transplantation society gives the medical examiner’s office a grant of $134,000 a year, according to county records. The program was initially funded in June 1999, and counselors were hired and completed training in March 2000, Dragovic said.

The Oakland County program is responsible for 33 donations in the past year, the second most in the state behind Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids, according to the group. Before the counseling program, Oakland’s morgue had no donations among the 1,100 or so autopsies performed there each year. Nationally, the number of tissue donations grew to 20,000 in 1999 from 6,000 in 1994, according to a report from the Federal Drug Administration.

“They are providing a necessary social function to assist grieving families,” Tom Beydersdorf, the transplantation society’s executive director, said of the Oakland program. “They are just getting to the point by asking for organ or tissue donation. If it works well in Oakland, it could be expanded to other counties.”

Dragovic said the goal is to ensure that families get immediate counseling. He also noted that Michigan law says local doctors get priority on local donations. No harvester sells organs or body tissue, but there are processing fees associated with each step of the collection system: harvesting the organs or tissue, then testing, processing, storing and delivering body parts.

The transplantation society reported revenues of more than $15 million in 2000. Among other companies, it works with CryoLife, a Georgia company that processes and stores heart valves, Beyersdorf said. CryoLife pays $1,200 for each heart valve, according to the American Association of Tissue Banks. The company then processes the valves and stores them. By the time the recipient is billed, the price can be up to $8,200.

Counselor Joyce Gulley is not forcing people to donate their loved ones’ organs, she says, just asking them to consider it. “Do you plan on cremation or a funeral?” Gulley asked on the phone to a man whose wife died Monday. “Have you spoken to anyone regarding tissue donation? Oh, OK, cornea or tissue would be fine with you.” Gulley tells the man he’ll receive a call from the transplantation society to confirm the plans, then immediately called the group. “We have to close the deal,” she said later. “The most difficult part is when they say OK, and then for whatever reason, the harvesters don’t get here or the person changes their mind and the donation falls through.” County Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub, who voted against the arrangement, said she’s not against organ donation, but she’s skeptical about the group’s role.

“My objection is not with the counseling,” Taub said. “Call them what they are — organ harvesters. The grief part of it is better done by the faith community.”

Contact SALLY FARHAT at 248-591-5630 or


Organ donation occurs immediately after death, but tissue and cornea donations

are possible for 12-24 hours after death.

The Transplantation Society of Michigan harvests the donation, then charges

fees to hospitals, universities and companies that use the parts. Ninety-six

percent of its $15.5-million annual revenue comes from these fees.

To become a donor

* Sign one of the new driver’s licenses or attach a consent sticker to the

back of an older license. Stickers and state donor registry cards are

available at any Secretary of State’s office. You can also register online at

* Tell family members it’s what you want. Even if you sign a consent form,

they will be asked for permission at the time of your death.

For more information, go online to or contact the

transplantation society at 800-482-4881 or 2203 Platt Road, Ann Arbor 48104.

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