‘It’s sickening’: Widow horrified after husband’s body forgotten in morgue, not donated to science
A widow is horrified after discovering her husband’s remains were forgotten in a hospital morgue for more than a week, despite his final wish that his body be donated to science.
“It’s sickening when you think about it. There was no dignity here. Not for him,” Elizabeth Belding-Roe tells Go Public.
In 2013, Belding-Roe and her husband, Gaylon Roe, made arrangements to donate their bodies to Dalhousie University medical school in Halifax when they died.
The decision meant a lot to Roe, a longtime NBC broadcaster who moved to Keswick Ridge, N.B., just outside of Fredericton, after meeting his wife online and getting married in 2007.
“We had decided cemeteries are getting full, we were both a little claustrophobic, so we decided for the good of science, we would donate our bodies,” Belding-Roe says, smiling at the memory.
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When her husband died at age 73 from a heart attack on Feb. 7, Belding-Roe informed hospital staff of his wishes. She was told everything was taken care of and her husband’s remains had left the province for the Nova Scotia university.
They hadn’t. Instead, his body remained in the hospital’s morgue.
Belding-Roe contacted Go Public after the hospital failed to offer an explanation.
“It’s wrong in every sense of the word. You have the love of your life … being treated like this,” Belding-Roe says.
More than 1,000 Canadians donate their bodies to universities every year for study and research. Dalhousie’s donation program is one of 17 across the country that accept anatomical donations.
The health authority in this case says what happened to Gaylon Roe is a rare exception; most donations go as planned.
‘Your husband is in the morgue’
Health officials say the coroner informed the family Roe’s body was still at the morgue after an assistant noticed it was still there eight days after the man had died.
‘If they made a mistake, why don’t they just admit it? Are they too big for that? Are we too small?’ -Elizabeth Belding-Roe
But Belding-Roe says no one told her anything until she contacted the coroner herself, asking for a copy of her husband’s death certificate, nine days after he had died.
“He said, ‘I have some very sad news for you. Your husband is in the morgue…. He didn’t go to Dalhousie like he was supposed to,'” Belding Roe says.
“I was just horrified.”
But it wasn’t until Go Public asked the hospital what happened that it became clear why the body was still there: a hospital staff member had called the wrong phone number.
By the time the problem was discovered, it was too late to carry out Gaylon Roe’s wishes. Body donations need to be made soon after death, before decomposition starts.
Belding-Roe says the situation was made worse when she couldn’t get answers from the hospital.
On Feb. 21, 15 days after Gaylon Roe died, the hospital agreed to pay for a basic cremation. But it still hadn’t offered a formal apology or any answers directly to Belding-Roe.
“The hospital did wrong. If they made a mistake, why don’t they just admit it? Are they too big for that? Are we too small?” she says.
Go Public was able to get an explanation — and an apology — from the health authority in charge of Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Frederiction where Gaylon Roe died.
“I want to offer an apology to Mr. Roe’s family,” says Geri Geldart, vice-president of clinical services for Horizon Health Network.
“In this situation, our process broke down and that resulted in the Roe family not being able to make that gift and we are very, very sorry for that.”
According to the health authority, 60 families a year offer body donations to Dalhousie University. The school accepts about half.
Yet Geldart says the day Roe died in the hospital’s emergency department, the staff called the wrong number — notifying the tissue transplant program of Roe’s death instead of the body donation program.
The two programs are unrelated.
“Staff in the emergency department thought they had called the right number but they hadn’t, and because they hadn’t, it never started the process for donation to Dalhousie,” Geldart says.
The health authority says it plans to update its reference material for hospital staff to clarify who to call and when, and has asked the transplant unit to notify the hospital of any potential problems.
Lost in the system
Estate planning lawyer Lynne Butler counsels people on the process and the importance of donating their bodies to science.
She says many people are willing to donate organs for transplant, but nervous about donating their bodies to science.
“Part of the problem is people worry about being in a system. They worry, is this all going to go right?” Butler tells Go Public from her office in St. John’s.
Situations like what happened to Gaylon Roe, while incredibly rare, feed into those concerns, she says.
“It’s hard for people to navigate their way through those systems anyway, but when it’s something that’s really emotionally laden like this kind of thing, it adds a kind of urgency, a kind of stress,” Butler said.
‘What a waste’
Belding-Roe says the only explanation she’s received was through Go Public’s interview with the health authority. She’s still upset no one from the hospital has called her family to explain.
Despite what happened, she says she still plans to donate her body when she dies.
“We decided for the good of science we’d donate our bodies and I’m going to do that,” Belding-Roe says.
“My nephew is a scientist. When he heard we were donating, he said ‘On behalf of all scientists, I thank you.’
“But when he found out what happened, he said, ‘What a waste.'”
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