- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — Patricia Battisti had thought her back surgery early last year was routine. A letter from her hospital nearly a year later made clear that she was wrong.

Miss Battisti was informed that the cadaver bone that was implanted in her back may have been infected with viruses — the result of what investigators say was a large-scale scheme in which corpses were cut up and body parts were sold illegally.

The Long Island woman says she contracted syphilis from the bone and plans to sue. The hospital adamantly denies the accusation. But the case might be an early warning that the scandal will lead to many lawsuits.

“I just want answers,” said Miss Battisti, 41, a single mother of four. “I had the operation to feel better, not get sick.”

She joins a growing list of potential victims.

Authorities think two men paid off funeral homes so they could take bones and skin from the dead without their families’ knowledge. Some body parts came from elderly people and, perhaps, victims of infectious diseases, and the paperwork was doctored to say they had been younger and healthier, investigators say.

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has opened a criminal case focusing on scores of funeral homes in the New York City area and hundreds of looted bodies, including that of “Masterpiece Theatre” host Alistair Cooke. No arrests have been made.

At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration is trying to trace the tissue, which was sold to medical facilities across the country and in Canada.

Both the FDA and hospital officials, while suggesting that certain patients should get tested for viruses as a precaution, insisted that the risk of becoming ill from tainted tissue is minuscule.

But some of those patients are not comforted, said Miss Battisti’s attorney, Jeffrey S. Lisabeth.

“It really freaks them out,” he said.

Also disturbed are families that recently learned of evidence that their dead relatives were carved up secretly before being buried or cremated.

A lawsuit filed in Brooklyn accuses a now-defunct New Jersey tissue bank, Biomedical Tissue Services, of stealing parts from a 43-year-old woman who died of ovarian cancer in 2003. The business purportedly forged a signature on a consent form and listed the cause of death as head trauma.

Authorities also found paperwork indicating that Mr. Cooke’s bones had been removed by the tissue bank before he was cremated. Mr. Cooke died of cancer in 2004 at 95, but authorities say documents listed the cause of death as heart attack and lowered his age to 85.

The operators of the bank have denied any wrongdoing.

Miss Battisti’s ordeal began in December, when North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System warned her and 41 other patients that they were at risk for HIV, hepatitis B and C, and syphilis.

The hospital’s attorney, Anthony Sola, argued that the tissue banks were responsible for screening and sterilizing their products, which arrive at hospitals ready for use in sealed containers.

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