Almost seven years after the death of her youngest son, Robertsdale resident Donna Crooks Atkins was shocked to learn the medical examiners who performed his autopsy kept his heart without telling her before they “disposed of it like garbage.”Justin Wendle Crooks died at age 17 from a ruptured aortic dissection. According to his mother, he died instantly while talking on the phone with her on March 25, 2007.
“I’ll never forget it. I was at a red light at 59 and 98 in Foley headed home from church,” Atkins said. “He had called and wanted to know where I was, when I was getting home and what was for lunch. He was a boy.”
In the same conversation, Atkins said she heard her son curse abruptly before the line went dead, though she initially thought “he had just dropped the phone.” However, when she got home, one of Justin’s older brother’s had already found him unresponsive.
“That’s when he left us. Well, his body left us,” Atkins added. “He never left me.”
An autopsy performed by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences in Mobile concluded Justin died from a ruptured aorta that started with a small tear about 10 days before his death.
That was an important factor in a medical malpractice lawsuit Atkins later brought against Thomas Hospital and a handful of physicians who treated Justin 11 days before he died.
On March 14, 2007, Justin had gone to the emergency room at Thomas with chest pain, difficulty breathing and “pain radiating to the back of his head and neck. According to Atkins, her son was given a large dose of pain medicine before being inaccurately diagnosed with pleurisy and sent home “without an MRI or a CT scan.”
Atkins filed a malpractice lawsuit in 2009, though it didn’t move to trial until 2013. A jury ultimately ruled in favor of the defendants, and when Atkins appealed the case on her own to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals she got a similar result.
Though she would “love to have her case reheard,” Atkins has taken a different focus during the past year in trying to find out why her son’s heart never came back from that examining room in Mobile.
According to Atkins, her son had never been an organ donor and she was never approached by anyone with ADFS about retaining Justin’s heart during his autopsy. In fact, she wasn’t aware it was even missing until the trial against Thomas Hospital started more than six years later.
“My lawyers told me the day before the trial, ‘I just wanted to let you know that they kept his heart, and slides of it may be displayed in the courtroom,’” she said. “He said, ‘I just wanted to warn you,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Excuse me?’ Because we cremated my son. I had no idea.”
A copy of Justin’s autopsy report shows several pieces of “evidence” the state retained including digital photographs, fingerprints and bloodstain cards, but a heart isn’t listed anywhere among those.
Atkins had a brief email exchange with the doctor who performed the autopsy in 2007. In those emails, which Lagniappe reviewed, the doctor wrote Justin’s heart was “kept for further diagnosis,” adding “the law states that an organ can be retained for diagnosis without explicit permission.”
Since then, Atkins has been trying to identify exactly where the ADFS gets that authority — something she refers to as “the invisible law.”
“If they had asked me and it would have helped another child, I would have said yes, but I still would have wanted [his heart] back to cremate and place with him,” Atkins said. “The thought that they didn’t ask and then threw my son’s heart away like garbage … that really upset me.”
She even went so far as to file an incident report with the Mobile Police Department in May citing “suspicious circumstances” at ADFS office in Mobile.
In Alabama, only the first page of police reports are accessible to the public. An MPD spokesperson said “to obtain the full report requires you to obtain a subpoena.”
“I was told, ‘you can file a police report, but we’re not going to investigate it,’” Atkins said. “So, I did.”
Mark Bass, general counsel for ADFS, said autopsies are requested by a district attorney, not the family of the deceased. He also said samples are retained on a “routine basis” and can sometimes include entire organs.
“The doctor doesn’t complete a cause and manner of death within the day or two we have the body. We shoot for 90 days, but it takes time,” Bass said. “We retain samples for a certain period of time and then dispose of any reminders as hospitals would with any medical waste.”
Bass said he sympathizes with the situation that can put family members in, but because much of what ADFS does involves criminal investigations, it generally does not communicate with anyone outside of the agency which authorized the autopsy.
“We all have families and we all have people that at some point or another could have to come through here,” Bass said. “We will do whatever the law tells us we need to do. We’re not going to run afoul the law.”
Laws have already been passed in the United Kingdom making it “illegal to remove body tissue without a person’s prior consent or that of their next of kin” and now Atkins is hopeful something that simplistic could be added to laws governing Alabamians’ rights to their loved ones’ remains — all of them.
“If I took my child to a doctor, I’m going to have to sign something and give consent for them to do anything,” Atkins said. “So, how can you remove his organs without my permission? I don’t see how you could legally do it, and morally, there’s no way you could do it. You just have to be some kind of inhumane person.”
Currently, Atkins manages a Facebook page dedicated to the issue under the name “Justin’s Heart.”