Parents want sons’ organs back from coroner’s office 

More than three months after his death, Selina Picon keeps the heart of her dead son at home.

By the time she discovered that the heart of her 23-year-old guitar-playing son, Nicolas, had been removed by the county Coroner’s Office in an autopsy and kept without her knowledge, he had already been buried, she said.

"My husband and I decided one of us will be buried with it," Picon said Tuesday, following a plea to the county Board of Supervisors to look into how this could happen.

Nicolas died quietly at home last October from a congenital heart condition, Picon said.

Picon’s plea, and that of her longtime friend Debra Maher, did not fall on deaf ears. Maher lost her son, Nicholas, last February to asthma only to find out later that several "cube-size" tissue samples had been kept by the coroner.

Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to work with local lawmakers to attempt to push through a statelaw requiring "next-of-kin" notification when organs or tissue samples are taken. Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, who brought the matter forward, is also pursuing a county policy requiring next-of-kin notification in county coroner cases.

While keeping an entire organ is rare, county Coroner Robert Foucrault’s office does take samples for future testing from every organ of those who undergo an autopsy, Coroner Robert Foucrault said.

"[State] law gives us the authority to do autopsies to determine the cause of death," Foucrault said. "We only retain the organs that are necessary to determine the cause of death."

Law or no law, supervisors on Tuesday panned the coroner — not for taking organs and tissue samples as needed, but for failing to notify the next of kin when they are kept.

"People were in the dark about what took place," Tissier said, calling the issue one of dignity.

"This demonstrates gross insensitivity to survivors and raises serious ethical questions," Supervisor Mark Church said.

Apologizing to both mothers, Foucrault said that while tissue and organ samples may be necessary to further investigate the cause of death, a new notification policy might be in order. In some cases, such as car accidents, tissue must be retained and examined for factors such as alcohol content, officials said.

As vice president of the California Coroner’s Association, he also plans to raise the matter at the upcoming March executive board meeting, Foucrault said.

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