Special Report: Reuters buys tellurian remains, and learns a donor’s comfortless story


TOWNSEND, Tennessee (Reuters) – Cody Saunders was innate in 1992 with unwell kidneys and a hole in his heart.

When he died on his 24th birthday, he had endured 66 surgeries and some-more than 1,700 rounds of dialysis, his kin said. Some days, he hid a pain in upbeat selfies on Facebook. Other days, he common an agonizing reality, posing in a sanatorium bed with bandages strapped opposite his scarred chest.

On his Facebook profile, Cody wrote that he was looking for a partner who will accept “me for me.”

“Y am we ugly,” he posted on Christmas Day 2015.

Cody lived with his kin in an aged motorhome during an East Tennessee campground. When he was good enough, he worked on a plantation with his father, feeding cattle, putting adult hay, hauling molasses in a dump lorry from one stable to another.

On Aug 2, 2016, Cody died after a heart conflict on his proceed home from dialysis. Too bad to bury or cremate him, Cody’s kin donated their son’s physique to an classification called Restore Life USA. The trickery sells donated bodies – in whole or by partial – to researchers, universities, medical training comforts and others.

“I couldn’t means nothin’ else,” father Richard explained.

The month after Cody died, Restore Life solitary partial of a immature man’s body: his cervical spine. The transaction compulsory customarily a few email exchanges and $300, and shipping.

Whether Restore Life vetted a patron is unclear. But if workers there had accurate their customer’s identity, they would have schooled he was a contributor from Reuters. The news group was seeking to establish how easy it competence be to buy tellurian physique tools and either those tools would be useful for medical research. In further to a spine, Reuters after purchased dual tellurian heads from Restore Life, any labelled during $300.

The exchange denote a extraordinary palliate with that tellurian physique tools competence be bought and solitary in a United States. Neither a sales nor a shipments disregarded any laws, contend lawyers, professors and supervision officials who follow a emanate closely. Although it’s bootleg to sell viscera used for transplants, it’s ideally authorised in many states to sell physique tools that were donated for investigate or education. Buying booze over a Internet is arguably some-more firmly controlled, generally requiring during smallest explanation of age.

To approve with legal, reliable and reserve considerations before a purchases, Reuters consulted with Angela McArthur, who leads a physique concession module during a University of Minnesota Medical School. She took evident control of a spine and heads for Reuters, inspecting and storing them during a medical school.

McArthur pronounced she was nervous by how simply a physique tools were acquired and by a disaster of Restore Life to perform correct due diligence.

“It’s like a Wild West,” McArthur said. “Anybody could have systematic these specimens and had them delivered to their home for whatever purpose they want.”

McArthur examined a stays and a support enclosed with them to establish how useful a tools would be for medical research. Her examination was formed on inhabitant reserve and ethics standards she helped breeze for a American Association of Tissue Banks, a American Association of Clinical Anatomists and a University of Minnesota.

She resolved that a medical story Restore Life supposing was insufficient, and that a concomitant paperwork was messy and inadequate. For those reasons, a specimens did not accommodate standards for use during her university, she said.

“I haven’t seen anything this gross before,” McArthur said. “I worry about a destiny of physique concession and open trust in physique concession when we have situations like this.”


Contacted several months after a sales, Restore Life President James Byrd quickly explained his proceed to business.

“Organizations like ours are what we cruise accountable because, generally us, we have proceed hit with a donor family,” he said. “And there’s a certain turn of honour and grace that is endangered there since we have that personal attribute with them.”

Byrd subsequently declined to be interviewed or answer created questions. But he emailed a matter in that he criticized Reuters for creation a purchases.

“It’s apparent your group during Thomson Reuters has no regard for those that find assistance from a organization,” he wrote. “You customarily wish to harm those that need assistance a most.”

Byrd combined that Restore Life does good work by provision physique tools to researchers operative to heal cancer, insanity and other diseases.

“We assistance vast people by a far-reaching operation of investigate operative with world-renowned researchers,” he wrote.

Whatever good Restore Life hoped to grasp by provision these physique parts, McArthur said, a bad doing of a stays “miserably failed” to offer researchers and a 3 donors: Cody Saunders and a unclear masculine and lady whose heads Byrd solitary to Reuters.

McArthur pronounced a kin of donors, whose intentions are eminent during a formidable time, merit improved from a industry.

“People consider they are doing a right thing, and they wish to perform their desired ones’ wishes,” pronounced McArthur, who before chaired Minnesota’s physique concession elect and serves on a care legislature of a American Association of Clinical Anatomists. “I know they would feel exploited to know that something like this happened.”

Thomas Champney, an anatomy highbrow during a University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, also voiced alarm during a palliate of a sales.

“Human physique tools should not be bought and solitary in a same demeanour as used refrigerators,” he said.


Byrd, 50, has been in a physique tools business for dual decades. An East Tennessee native, a physique attorney recently was runner-up in a stand-up comedy competition called The Funniest Person in a Tri-Cities, a segment surrounding Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol.

Before opening Restore Life, Byrd destined a nonprofit hankie bank called American Donor Services, afterwards located circuitously Memphis.

For several years, one of American Donor’s arch orthopedic business was a Texas organisation dependent with a association that distributed bone grafts finished in partial from tellurian tissue. In 2005, according to sworn testimony in a polite lawsuit, American Donor shifted to a new arch orthopedic customer. The new patron paid as many as $10,000 per donor, supposing a $200,000 line of credit and began doing American Donor’s financial affairs.

Byrd left American Donor Services a brief while later, worked quickly for a vascular hankie bank, and afterwards founded Restore Life in 2008. Based in Elizabethton, Tennessee, Restore Life obtains bodies mostly from people in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. In lapse for physique donations, Restore Life offers to collect adult a deceased, cremate a new stays for giveaway and lapse them to a family.

In 2011, Byrd spoke publicly about Restore Life in a display to a commissioners in circuitously Sullivan County. Officials there had grown undone by a augmenting cost to taxpayers of cremating a indigent. According to a recording of that meeting, Byrd explained that he could assistance a county. He also remarkable that many families who donated to Restore Life did so for financial reasons: All losses were covered, including cremation.

“We have turn some-more a use for those bankrupt and homeless cases that can’t means a funeral,” Byrd told a commissioners. “It’s a ideal fit for situations where families don’t have a appropriation or infrequently where it’s left to a county for funding.”

Restore Life’s spontaneous arrangement with Sullivan County to take bankrupt bodies continues today, county officials said. A few times a month, they said, a medical investigator or other officials impute homeless cases to Byrd for probable donation. At a 2011 meeting, County Attorney Dan Street pronounced a grave arrangement with Byrd was nonessential since officials were merely referring a bankrupt to him, nonetheless any publicity implied.

“This association is simply going to come and take these bodies,” Street told commissioners. “We’re simply removing out of a proceed and vouchsafing them do what private craving does best.”

Since it opened, Restore Life has grown roughly any year, according to a latest accessible taxation annals filed with a Internal Revenue Service.

Records uncover that Restore Life’s annual income rose from $49,251 in 2009 to $1.1 million in 2016. Income also increased, a annals show. In 2009, losses exceeded income by $1,277. Last year, revenues were $187,884 aloft than expenses. The taxation annals uncover a charity’s net resources were $354,556 on Aug. 31, 2016, a final date for that annals are available.

Byrd lives and works in a Tennessee city where a median domicile income is $30,000. The nonprofit he operates paid him a income of $113,000 final year, a taxation annals show.


Angie Saunders recalls that during her pregnancy, there were no signs of difficulty in her prenatal check-ups or ultrasound tests. But when Cody was innate on Aug 2, 1992, he arrived in grave distress.

He was changed from a county sanatorium to a University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, where he stayed 3 months. He was diagnosed with VATER Syndrome, a condition involving mixed birth defects.

Besides a hole in his heart and unwell kidneys, Cody was innate nonetheless a rectum. For a initial dual years of his life, Cody’s kin said, they fed him by a gastrostomy tube.

Cody had so many dietary restrictions – no milk, no chocolate, no tomatoes, no salt – that he staid on dry Fruit Loops as his go-to meal. For dessert, he took a integrate of bites from a hang of butter.

Cody indispensable dialysis 3 times a week, 4 hours per session. Given her son’s needs, his mom couldn’t work much. His father told any employer upfront that his child came first.

“Half of his life, if it wasn’t a hospital, it was dialysis,” Richard said. “I went by a lot of jobs.”

When Cody was about 9 years old, his kin said, he perceived a kidney transplant that remade him. It liberated him from unchanging dialysis. He schooled to float and had some-more time for school.

“I wouldn’t contend he was normal,” Richard said, “but during slightest we wasn’t carrying to be tied down as much.”

The new kidney lasted a tiny some-more than 5 years, and when it failed, Cody was rushed by helicopter to a sanatorium for a monthlong stay, his kin said. Dialysis began anew.

At 14, Cody won a children’s art contest. The charity, American Kidney Fund, flew him to Washington, D.C. On a competition questionnaire, he listed his favorite things, including gym class, coloring, and roving his bike. His favorite actor was Scooby Doo. His purpose models: his father and his mom. When he grew up, Cody wrote, he hoped to work with his father.

Cody left propagandize in a 11th grade. His kin contend he was reading during a second-grade level. He worked on farms as mostly as he could with his dad, and in a winter they solitary firewood. He chewed Skoal tobacco and played pool during a internal club. To strengthen his kidneys and heart, he didn’t splash alcohol. But he didn’t always follow doctors’ advice. He could splash a six-pack of Mello Yello soda in a day, his kin said.

In his final years, Cody grew unhappy and lonely. His kin noticed, and so did his friends on Facebook. He was sap of a pills, a dialysis, a hospitals and a unchanging reminders of what he could and could not do, his kin said.

“I consider not customarily his physique was tired, nonetheless his whole mind was done,” his father said.

“He wasn’t scared,” his mom said. “He was ready.”

Cody’s heart stopped on his birthday, Aug 2, 2016. Not prolonged afterward, Restore Life collected his body.


On Aug 29, 2016, Reuters contributor Brian Grow sent an exploration around email to Restore Life’s Byrd. At a time, a news group knew zero about Cody Saunders.

To hit Byrd, a contributor used his genuine name and his Thomson Reuters email account.

“We are seeking pricing, including shipping costs, to gain one cervical spine citation for functions of a investigate plan involving non-transplant tissue,” a query said. The tenure “non-transplant tissue” refers to physique parts, such as heads and spines, that can't be transplanted into vital humans.

The ask from a contributor supposing a smoothness residence in Minneapolis, a few miles from a University of Minnesota’s anatomy lab. The query concluded, “We demeanour brazen to conference from you.”

Byrd responded about an hour later. “Thank we for your email, we do not trust we have worked with we in a past. How did we hear about a organization?”

“Your organisation was referred to us by an attention contact,” Grow replied.

Byrd asked if Grow wanted a full cervical spine – a vertebrae and hankie in a neck, customarily next a skull. When told yes, Byrd replied that a cost would be $300, and $150 shipping. He trustworthy X-rays, that were described as belonging to a 24-year-old male.

Three days later, Grow supposed a offer.

Byrd replied, “Thank we again for permitting us a event to work with we and your organization.” He combined 3 questions. One endangered billing, and one asked to endorse that a spine should be sent frozen, not thawed. Byrd’s third doubt was either a citation would be used for “medical investigate or medical education.”

In further to last how easy it competence be to buy physique parts, Reuters sought to consider a peculiarity of a specimens and a support that came with them. When a contributor responded simply, “It’s being used for medical research,” Byrd sealed a deal.

“Thank we again (sic) a event to work with we and your organization,” he wrote.

McArthur pronounced a Reuters squeeze was authorised and ethical. No law prohibits such sales, she said, and a news group was conducting legitimate research. Byrd, she added, pennyless no laws by offering a physique parts. Still, she said, a 3 questions he asked in his email demonstrated a broker’s concentration on completing a sale, rather than on seeking some-more sum about a buyer’s intentions.

That routine can embody a ask by a seller for sum about how a patron intends to use a physique tools for investigate or education.

McArthur pronounced brokers like Byrd who accept donations have an reliable shortcoming – nonetheless not a authorised one – to safeguard that physique tools will be used in a medical environment for an suitable purpose. Reuters incited over a stays to McArthur for investigate and safekeeping. But another patron could have finished anything with a tellurian spine and heads, she said.


On Sep 27, 2016, a FedEx motorist delivered a brownish-red card box to a Minneapolis plcae where Reuters had leased a mailing address. There, Grow perceived a package and gave it to a bearer who specializes in transporting tellurian remains. The bearer gathering it directly to McArthur during a medical school.

McArthur immediately beheld problems. She pronounced she found it peculiar that a outward of a box was not labeled with a prevalent warning that tellurian stays were inside. McArthur found a span of one-page papers in a box. One contained a formula of a serology exam by a creditable company, certifying that a donor was giveaway of spreading disease.

The other page offering a handwritten summary, in layman’s terms, of a donor’s medical history.

“In my experience, we would have approaching to see a some-more strong form,” McArthur said, explaining that many brokers yield accurate and notation medical histories. “It’s really superficial.”

The medical outline contained conjunction letterhead nor hit phone number, she noted. McArthur also cited inconsistencies in a citation marker numbers listed during a tip and bottom of one of a pages. And she beheld a tiny inequality between a marker numbers listed on a paperwork and a tab trustworthy to a cosmetic bag covering a spine.

Precise, clear medical story and unchanging donor marker systems are vicious information for correct medical research, pronounced University of California anatomical services executive Brandi Schmitt. The medical story helps a researcher comment for variables such as illness or trauma. Clear paperwork and accurate tagging, she said, concede researchers to lane specimens in a systematic manner.

To forestall mishaps that could lead to mislaid or misidentified physique parts, Schmitt said, many hospitals and medical schools use complicated tracking techniques, including computer-generated steel discs or barcode tags. A tab of some arrange should have been directly trustworthy to a spine itself, she said, not merely to a packaging.

“Misidentification is a genuine problem, for sure,” pronounced Schmitt, who coordinates physique concession for a University of California’s medical schools statewide. “I don’t consider that a handwritten request is your many veteran approach. It can lead to tellurian error.”

A week after a spine arrived, Byrd responded to a follow-up email from Grow. Byrd pronounced tellurian heads were accessible for $300 each. He also offering discounts on knee and feet specimens to giveaway adult “some freezer space.” He wrote that his low prices for physique tools simulate a company’s “nonprofit open charity” status, adding: “We are looking to customarily cover a overhead.”


Richard and Angie Saunders pronounced they wanted to bury Cody beside kin in a circuitously cemetery. But Richard, who struggles to read, earns customarily about $900 a month. Angie, who has prolonged suffered from debilitating anxiety, can't work or drive. A funeral was simply too expensive.

Friends offering to compensate for cremation, that typically costs during slightest $695 in a region. But a Saunders pronounced they felt nervous about usurpation present from folks they know. So they donated Cody’s physique to Restore Life. At a time, Richard pronounced he was beholden for a giveaway cremation a organisation promised.

The hardship a family faced is not odd among donors, pronounced Martha Thayer, chair of a mortuary scholarship module during Arapahoe Community College in Colorado.

Bereaved families are “vulnerable and are being put in a position of selecting this as an choice when they don’t have money,” Thayer said. “The customarily thing that’s some-more unhappy than a chairman who can’t means to live is a chairman who can’t means to die.”

In Cody’s case, a relations review a donor agree form aloud to his kin before they sealed it.

One divide says: “I sanction Restore Life USA to obtain all required hankie and viscera for investigate and educational purposes. we know this present will be used for systematic research, training or other adapting functions and for use in mixed investigate or educational venues with for distinction and/or non-profit organizations that Restore Life USA, in their solitary discretion, deems required to promote a gift.”

The Saunders pronounced they believed this meant that Restore Life would merely mislay tiny skin samples from Cody for medical research, cremate him and afterwards lapse his ashes. The Restore Life agree form for Cody didn’t divulge that a donated physique competence be dismembered, as agree forms of many other brokers do.

A few weeks after a donation, a masculine from Restore Life delivered an vessel with Cody’s ashes. Angie can’t remember a man’s name nonetheless pronounced he was kind.

“Really good and understanding,” she said.

The fee Cody’s genocide has taken on Richard worries Angie. He won’t eat some-more than a few bites of whatever she cooks and customarily refuses to speak about their loss. Richard pronounced Angie isn’t wrong, nonetheless he remarkable he has reduced his smoking, from 5 packs a day to about three.

On a rusted red-and-white pickup he used to float in with his son, Richard placed a vast plaque on a behind window: “In Loving Memory of Cody Saunders.”

“He was my buddy. He was my best friend,” Richard said. “I keep revelation myself I’ll get over it, I’ll get over it.”

In a shoebox inside her motorhome, Angie Saunders keeps 4 photographs of Cody. In any one, he looks directly into a camera, shades perched over his ballcap. She also keeps a china vessel containing his stays on a dashboard.

“I didn’t get to reason Cody when he came into a universe and we didn’t get to reason him when he went out,” she said. “But he came behind to me, so he’s in here with me.”


In January, Restore Life shipped a second package to Reuters during a same Minneapolis address. This one contained dual tellurian heads: one male, one female. As an arriving story will detail, Reuters purchased a heads as partial of a investigate into a box in Pennsylvania. There, a tellurian conduct was found in a wooded area circuitously Pittsburgh roughly 3 years ago.

Again, a dilettante bearer brought a box to McArthur’s university lab, where she donned protecting rigging and non-stop it.

The Styrofoam enclosure inside a card box arrived burst along dual of a outward edges, creation it exposed to leaks and presenting a intensity health risk to anyone doing it, from shippers to researchers, McArthur said.

She also found problems with a paperwork for a masculine head.

“The area where hankie samples are customarily listed – customarily with client, representation description, representation ID, form of preservation, and a date and time of refuge – is all blank,” she said.

Likewise, a paperwork for a womanlike conduct was unprofessionally prepared, she said. McArthur pronounced a papers were so tough to review that she struggled to know pivotal information any researcher would require, including a person’s medical history.

After a jacket and paperwork were removed, McArthur found that conjunction conduct had an marker tag. A tab is deliberate critical, McArthur said, to lane identity, generally when operative with mixed physique parts.

McArthur pronounced that she was informed with stories of infrequent sales of physique tools by brokers, nonetheless a sloppiness of this conveyance astounded her.

“I don’t trust what we have customarily seen here should be authorised or should be legal,” McArthur said. “I know that it can be rubbed in a proceed that won’t suppress medical preparation and research. We can do this a right way.”


As is prevalent in a physique attorney industry, Restore Life did not embody a names of a people who donated a physique tools it solitary to contributor Grow – customarily any person’s age and date of death.

Reuters could not brand a people whose heads were shipped. But during customarily 24, Cody Saunders died so immature that a news group was means to brand him after acid by obituaries in southern states.

With his parents’ accede and participation, Reuters hired a debate lab to perform a DNA test. It reliable that a cervical spine came from Cody.

In late August, Grow returned to revisit Richard and Angie Saunders to tell them what Reuters had learned: Restore Life had dissected their son’s physique and solitary partial of his spine.

For a few moments, Cody’s kin sat silently.

Angie stared into a distance. Richard looked during a ground.

Then Angie spoke. “I suspicion they was customarily holding skin samples,” she pronounced and began to cry.

Richard attempted to comfort her. “It’s over with, honey.”

“I didn’t wish no some-more surgeries,” she said.

“At that time, we did not have no choice,” Richard reminded her. “But we have to demeanour during it this way: Like we kept saying, if it’s going to assistance somebody else…”

“I know, we know.”

The integrate pronounced zero some-more for scarcely half a minute. Finally, Richard incited to Angie. This partial of their lives was “done and over,” he told her.

Had they famous Cody would be dissected, his kin said, they would not have donated his body. Cody, they felt, already had endured too many surgeries during his brief life. They didn’t want, or expect, anyone to “cut on him” in death, Richard said.

And yet, he added, “I couldn’t means to do zero else, so we felt like that was a best choice we had.”

Richard asked either Restore Life used any other tools of Cody’s body. The contributor pronounced he didn’t know. Brokers typically don’t divulge that information. Richard pronounced he doubted he would find answers from Restore Life. “I don’t censure them,” he said. But he appreciated training what happened to Cody’s remains.

“Because we would have never known,” he said.

Angie agreed. “We wouldn’t have had a clue.”

Early this month, in gripping with a family’s wishes and during Reuters’ expense, Cody’s spine was cremated in Minnesota. Grow delivered a stays to a Saunders family during their home in Tennessee.

Reported by Brian Grow and John Shiffman; edited by Blake Morrison


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