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June 7, 2019

'Medical mementos': What happens when patients want to keep their body parts after surgery?

Daily Briefing

    While it might seem "unusual," it's not uncommon for patients to take home their "medical leftovers," including organs and medical devices, as keepsakes or souvenirs after a surgery, Keri Wiginton reports for the Chicago Tribune.

    What do consumers want from surgical care?

    A 'memento'

    Barbara Brotman, senior assistant director of development communications for University of Chicago Medicine and Biological Sciences and a former Tribune columnist, was one of these patients.

    At age 17, Brotman smashed her pelvis during a hike in the Grand Canyon, and required a hip replacement. But Brotman said the doctor encouraged her to seek a partial hip replacement instead of a full replacement. "It was a very hard operation to do. It failed frequently," Brotman said. "He did it because of my age. He didn't want me to have an operation every 10 years. It would have been a nightmare."

    But the doctor succeeded, and inserted the hip ball—a metal, silver half-circle that "could fit in the palm of your hand"—that allowed Brotman to continue biking, hiking, and skiing, for 40 years, Wiginton writes. When Brotman did eventually have to get it replaced, she asked to keep the metal device.

    "I wanted to own it as a memento, as a connection to my surgeon who had died, who I felt I owed a great deal," Brotman said.

    While Brotman believed her request was a bit "unusual," Wiginton writes that her surgeon was "unfazed" by her request. After proper procedure, he sterilized the device and returned it to her as "shiny as the day it was put in," Wiginton writes.

    How patient can get their 'mementos'

    In some states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, owning human remains is against the law, Wiginton writes, but there's no federal law preventing patients from taking home organs, tissues, and medical devices.

    Jon Lomasney, a pathologist and associate professor of pathology at Northwestern Medicine said patients can legally request access to their organs, tissue, or medical devices. He notes the same request can be made by families with power of attorney or next of kin if a patient has died. Once a request is made, Lomasney explained, doctors are "obligated to make those available."

    To do so, the doctor will send the material to pathology where the body part is "fixed" in a container filled with formaldehyde and water. Patients or family members are then briefed on how to care for the item, for example, body parts stored in formaldehyde and water should be changed every 10 years, according to Wiginton. In addition, they are briefed on potential infections hazards and are required to sign paperwork absolving the hospital of liability, according to Lomasney.

    As long as the body part is properly stored, "[t]he specimen would remain in pristine condition…for centuries," according to Lomasney.

    The risky 'medical leftovers' you can't take home

    That said, there are some limitations.

    For instance, patients are prohibited from keeping radioactive materials, or body parts or devices that could pose an "extreme risk" to the patient or the public, Wiginton writes. Materials that are considered high-risk include body parts that are infected with a hard-to-kill pathogen like drug-resistant tuberculosis or Ebola.

    In other cases, a patient's request to take home a body part may be rejected because the organ did not survive the operation in one piece. "Some things get sectioned like a loaf of bread," Lomasney said. "The organ wouldn't be recognizable if it's a cyst or a kidney because it's all chopped into pieces."

    A sentimental process

    For patients and family members who are able to take home a body part or medical device, there's usually a great sentimental significance, Wiginton writes.

    Brotman's daughter, Nina Berman, took her wisdom tooth home after surgery and had it suspended in gold-flaked glycerin inside a shotgun shell so she could wear the memento as a necklace. 

    "Honestly, it didn't occur to me not to want it," Berman said. "I already had a solid collection of bones, stones and pelts … so of course I'd want my own tooth from my head."

    Meanwhile, Brotman said her metal hip piece is "an important part of [her] personal history."

    "I'm really grateful to it," she said (Wiginton, Chicago Tribune, 6/5).

    What do consumers want from surgical care?

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