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Frank Gray

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Body move upends brain donation plan

John Hubertz always regarded his mother, Bernice, as a highly accomplished woman.

She earned a bachelor's degree in the 1930s, when fewer than one in four people even graduated from high school. During World War II, he says, as an executive secretary, she was put in charge of purchasing for the company that built the community of Oak Ridge, Tenn., part of the Manhattan Project. The company put up homes for 35,000 people in eight months.

After the war, she was a teacher, specializing in working with children with speech impediments and learning disabilities.

Eventually she was married and had children and stayed at home as a mother and wife after that.

She never drank too much or used drugs, and she was into natural foods back when some people might have considered that a little bit silly.

Late in life, though, Bernice Hubertz developed a curious form of dementia. She remained lucid, but she lost the ability to recognize numbers. Later, she would be unable to recall simple words. She suffered from macular degeneration and became blind.

John Hubertz thought this strange and wondered whether exposure to chemicals during the 1950s, when his mother lived in New York state in the same region as Love Canal, could have something to do with it.

After some discussion, John Hubertz's mother agreed last year that when she died, she would donate her brain to the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center.

The center, also called the Harvard Brain Bank, specializes in studying the brains of people suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Huntington's disease and other disorders. It also accepts brains from people with no disorders for comparison studies, though it laments it doesn't get as many of those as it would like.

Not long ago, Bernice Hubertz fell at the nursing home where she was staying and broke her leg. She was taken to St. Joseph Hospital for treatment, and then transferred to Select Specialty Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital inside St. Joe, to recover.

Last Thursday morning, Bernice Hubertz took a sudden turn for the worse. Her son was notified, but within a few minutes, Bernice had died.

John Hubertz said he hadn't provided any paperwork to the hospital regarding the tissue donation. He'd planned to do that the following Monday.

So on Thursday, shortly after his mother's death, he says he told officials at Select that the body was to go to Tom Mungovan Funeral Home. Hubertz said someone at the hospital offered to make arrangements for the remains to be picked up. Meanwhile, the body was placed in a morgue at St. Joe.

It was Friday morning before Hubertz called Mungovan to make all the arrangements for the donation, etc., only to find his mother's body wasn't there. He called another funeral home by a similar name, and then every funeral home in town, but he couldn't find the body.

It turned out that about 12:30 p.m. Thursday, about four hours after she died, Hubertz said, his mother's body was picked up by a funeral home in Lafayette, taken there and quickly embalmed.

The problem is that the embalming process made the brain and other parts worthless for scientific-research purposes.

Hubertz is livid. As his mother's only surviving child, he was responsible for the disposition of his mother's remains, and the donation of her brain and possibly more for scientific purposes was important to him and quite possibly scientifically important.

He wants to know how his mother's body could have been picked up by someone other than those he authorized.

We asked the funeral home in Lafayette who had authorized it to pick up Bernice Hubertz's body. They said under the circumstances, they would have to decline to comment on the matter.

We also asked the Lutheran Health Network its policy on how a body is claimed after a patient dies. According to a spokesman, the hospitals follow the wishes of documented health care decision-makers and confirm all information with funeral homes on their arrival.

Hubertz's story suggests that other members of his mother's family are involved, but he says those he has spoken to deny authorizing any funeral home to pick up the body.

A spokesman for Lutheran Health Network said no one he had spoken to had ever heard of such a dispute over a body.

Undeniably, though, no tissues can be donated.

In an e-mail to Hubertz, the Harvard Brain Bank director expressed her condolences and said any sadness he was experiencing may be magnified by the circumstances following his mother's death.

Frank Gray has held positions as a reporter and editor at The Journal Gazette since 1982 and has been writing a column on local issues since 1998. His column is published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, of e-mail at