Calgary

Top medical examiner shocked after former Calgary pathologists dubbed 'body snatchers' in Texas

Two former Calgary medical examiners are accused of harvesting organs from dead children without their parents' consent in Texas, for use in personal research.

Doctors deny wrongdoing, call allegations 'absolutely untrue'

Two medical examiners, not pictured, have been accused of improper autopsies. They formerly worked in Calgary but resigned as medical examiners in 2011. (Mary Altaffer, File/The Associated Press)

One of Canada's most experienced medical examiners says he's shocked by news that two former Calgary pathologists have been dubbed "body snatchers."

Dr. Sam Andrews and Dr. Evan Matshes have been accused of harvesting organs from dead children without their parents' consent in Texas — for personal research.

The U.S. county of Lubbock contracted a company owned by Andrews and Matshes to run its medical examiner's office last year. Shortly after, employees went public to complain of what they perceived to be improper autopsies. That launched a series of investigations that are now underway in Texas.

"The harvesting of tissue without authority … is at least unethical and, in most cases, unlawful," said Dr. John Butt, an international expert who led the first medical examiner's office in Calgary. "So in Canada, it would be considered a criminal act."

'Pretty bad' allegations

Butt helped write the law that governs the profession and public body in Alberta and also served as the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners in the United States. He now runs a consultant firm and travels across the continent to provide expert opinion.

He said he was particularly concerned with the allegations of improper tissue harvesting and that Dr. Matshes is accused of performing autopsies without being licensed to practise in Texas.

"Those things are still a bit up in the air but they're pretty bad. They're pretty strong claims," Butt said.

He noted the allegations have not yet been proven. He has met both doctors but doesn't know them well.

Medical examiners quit Calgary jobs

Both Andrews and Matshes made the news when they quit their jobs in the Alberta medical examiner's office Calgary in 2011.

The situation garnered more attention after the justice department investigated Matshes' work and highlighted serious concerns in more than a dozen of his homicide cases.

He moved to the United States and sued the province in a still ongoing lawsuit.

Dr. Sam Andrews, left, and Dr. Evan Matshes are pathologists and medical examiners. They run the National Autopsy Assay Group. (National Autopsy Assay Group)

Investigative reporter Shaley Sanders and her colleagues received multiple complaints about the two doctors after they arrived in Texas. The team at Lubbock's NBC affiliate, KCBD, has since published a series of articles on the allegations and the fallout.

"This is just kind of turned into a mess with a flood of allegations," Sanders told the Calgary Eyeopener.

Employees of the medical examiner's office told the team they were instructed to gather more tissue and organs than under the old manager. Those samples were often sent to the new bosses' lab in San Diego, where their company, National Autopsy Assay Group, conducts autopsies and runs tests.

Investigations

An employee said Matshes requested tissue samples from a baby who died from meningitis and another child who died in an explosion. When employees questioned the need to sample, when the causes of death were clear, they alleged Matshes said he needed "naturals" for research.

A former employee has filed a lawsuit, alleging she was fired after raising concerns.

County officials have halted all autopsies, Sanders reported, as the state medical board and police investigate.

"The doctors have adamantly denied that this is happening. They say they have not and will not harvest any organs," Sanders said. "But the allegations continue."

'Absolutely untrue'

A spokesperson for National Autopsy Assay Group strongly denied the claims on behalf of the doctors.

He provided a letter to CBC that Dr. Matshes sent to the local government, disputing the charges. David Margulies said the allegations stem from staff who resented new management's policies.

"The charges are absolutely untrue," said Margulies, president of the public relations firm that is representing the company on this matter.

"They don't do medical research and the only thing they're doing are performing autopsies, and all of the information in the lawsuit is complete BS."

Lubbock County is in northwest Texas. (Google Maps)

He said staff weren't happy with changes the doctors brought in, including more thorough autopsies and occasionally sending samples to their company, which provided extra analysis for free.

Margulies said he did not see that as a conflict of interest. He denied that Matshes did work that would require a state licence.

'Terribly difficult for families'

Regardless of what's happening in the United States, Butt wants Albertans to be confident in their local medical examiner's offices. In his experience, the offices have functioned responsibly under strong laws that govern research sampling.

He said donating tissue from children for research should always involve informed consent.

"The parents do understand there is some virtue to doing that and that it can sustain the memory of the lost child in a way that helps to reconcile the event," Butt said. "So I think it's a good thing, provided parents are properly educated about it."

 He said if the allegations in Texas prove to be true, that parents would find it "very devastating."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener