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Family upset organs donated prior to autopsy

LORAIN, Ohio –The Lorain County Coroner’s Office is being sharply criticized for allowing organs of a deceased teenager to be released prior to doing an autopsy.

Vanessa Webb,17, died unexpectedly last November and the coroner was unable to determine the cause of death.

“We’re not satisfied that a 17-year-old died for no good reason,” said Dr.Stephen Evans, who is the coroner in Lorain County.

Some of Vanessa’s organs, including her heart, were donated to Lifebanc, before the coroner did an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

“I don’t understand how you can donate someone’s organs before you do an autopsy,” said a distraught Jennifer Stewart, Vanessa’s mother.

Jennifer told the Investigator Tom Meyer that the coroner’s office talked to her twice about organ donation, just hours after she learned her daughter had passed away. Dr. Evans insists that the organs were recovered at the request of the family.

“We try to honor the family’s wishes. The family’s wishes in this case were to do a donation,” he said.

“That infuriates me,” said Jennifer. She believes the coroner jumped the gun, and presumed wrongly that her daughter died of a drug overdose. Police ruled out suicide or foul play.

“My wishes were to find out a cause of death, and now, because of them pushing to have an organ donation, rather than an autopsy, I may never have closure,” she said.

Dr. Evans admits he considered an accidental overdose given the local heroin epidemic. But he says he had never come to any conclusions at the time the organs were donated.

“This is still an ongoing investigation,” he said.

It’s been 10 months since Vanessa passed away.

“I think they’re buying time. I think they (the coroner) will never determine the cause of death,” said Roni Sokol, one of the attorneys along with David Malik who are representing the family.

Malik said in a statement: “It has long been recognized in the transplant industry that the procurementt of organs for transplant is a process wrought with conflcits of interest. Both Lifebanc and the Lorain County Coroner’s office are two parties at the center of the conflicts of interest in this case. We will be seeking to improve the process related to the procurement of organs for transplant through every legal weapon available.”

Sokol says a lawsuit is being prepared.

“Under Ohio law, they’re not supposed to release the body to anyone until a cause of death has been determined,” Sokol said.

Dr. Evans believes his office has done nothing wrong. He says Lifebanc examined the heart and his office autopsied the rest of the body, but only after the organs were taken.

Lifebanc declined to talk about the individual case, but sent a statement regarding the importance and value of organ donations.

“Lifebanc recognizes all organ, eye and tissue donors as heroes in their efforts to save the lives of the more than 125,000 women, children and men who are currently waiting for life-saving organ transplants nationwide. One organ donor can save up to eight lives and enhance the lives of 50 other people through tissue donation,” according to the statement released by Jillian Frazier, the Director of Development and Community Services.

Jennifer Stewart maintains that the autopsy was always the top priority and should have been done before any of her daughter’s organs were given away.

She says she’ll keep fighting for answers.

“She (Vanessa) deserves that. We deserve that,” she said.

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