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Fact-Checking Claim That Tissue Donation 'Will Not Disfigure The Body'

Posted at 7:33 PM, Oct 29, 2015
and last updated 2016-01-18 00:27:53-05

The organization that handles organ and tissue donation for most of Tennessee has promised changes in how it describes the process.

That follows questions uncovered by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Among the questions: What have prospective donors been told? And does it reflect the reality of what happens with tissue donation?

"The benefit to society is unquestionable -- it has saved lives," said Chuck Crawford, owner of Crawford Mortuary Services in Nashville.

But, as a funeral director of more than 30 years, Crawford also sees another side of organ and tissue donation -- a side that he tries hard to make sure his families never see.

"You're trying to portray this as we are going to harvest tissue from this body, but it is not going to change anything -- and that just doesn't make any sense," he added.

While it's the lifesaving stories of organ donation that convince people to become donors, the fact is that most deaths don't lead to such stories.

That's because organs can only be harvested when the donor is brain dead and still hooked to life support.

So most donors -- unless they've specified what they want to donate -- end up being utilized for their tissue.

"What I have seen is that progressively, over time, more and more tissues are being taken from the bodies," Crawford said.

A checklist from an actual donor shows what you may not have realized, that the word "tissues" includes corneas, heart valves, veins and arteries, arm and leg bones, ribs, cartilage and skin.

As a funeral director, Crawford gets what's left.

"In certain areas, particularly the legs, there is no tissue from the hip to the foot. It has been removed," the funeral director said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So everything between the torso and the foot is gone?"

"That's what I've seen, yes," Crawford answered. "The same with the skin, they will remove skin now from the entire epidermis all the way down to bone."

"Front and back?"

"Front and back."

Yet, promotional materials for Donate Life Tennessee downplay just how invasive the process can be, saying "the donor's body is fully reconstructed and looks like it did before the donation surgery."

"The body has been reconstructed, but it certainly doesn't look anything like it did before the harvest had taken place," Crawford countered.

"So that is false?" we asked.

Crawford said, "I think it is misleading."

But Jill Grandas, the executive director of DCI Donor Services, insisted "the donor patient is treated with the utmost dignity and respect in the donation process."

DCI Donor Services is a non-profit organization, based here in Nashville, that provides donor services for most of Tennessee, as well as New Mexico, northern California and northern Nevada.

"We want to make sure that we are giving the most accurate information possible," Grandas added.

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained photos from inside DCI.

While they're too graphic for television, they do show a donor where everything is taken from the legs except for the muscle.

The feet are reconnected to the torso with blue piping. DCI says the pipes are made of cornstarch.

That despite the claim on DCI's own website that donation "will not disfigure the body."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Grandas, "That wasn't really accurate was it?"

"Again, when we talk about tissue donation and refer to that process we want to be very sensitive," she replied.

We continued, "Tissue donation can be very invasive?"

"Tissue donation is a surgical procedure," Grandas said. "It could be difficult for anyone who is not a surgeon to understand, to observe or to see that process."

Grandas insisted that the intent was never to say that the body looks exactly like it did before the donation surgery -- only that an open casket funeral is still possible.

Still, it's language that she admitted needed to be clarified.

"When you brought it to our attention, man, I'm ready to change it, as long as it's going to help us do a better job," she said.

Grandas noted that tissue donation can be lifesaving and life-changing, providing heart valves for infants, skin for burn victims, reconstructive surgery for breast cancer survivors and bone grafts for people who might otherwise lose a leg.

"We talk to families every day who have made this selfless gift and it is a comfort to them," she said.

And Crawford agreed. He just feels that families, in their time of grief, are entitled to full disclosure.

"If it's not something that the families would find distasteful, I see no reason not to disclose it -- and even if it was distasteful, the more reason to disclose it," the funeral director added.

During our interview, Grandas told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that she planned to take the lessons learned from our questions and share them with other donor organizations across the country, to make sure the process is more transparent.

But, in a letter sent Thursday, she said that we should have "walked away from the story" because there is no evidence that DCI's policies have "resulted in injury or harm."