CHICAGO — Dale Wheatley, who performs deliveries for the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, came into work two weeks ago and found sage burning and three severed heads lying on a plastic container by his desk.
Wheatley, who has worked for AGA for nearly five years, said he’s never seen anything like the horror movie-like scene he stumbled upon that Wednesday morning in late May.
Wheatley said the heads from AGA donors were placed next to his desk after he reported concerns about the mishandling and poor conditions of donated bodies to his supervisors. But AGA Executive Vice President William O’Connor denied any maltreatment accusations, saying that handling body parts is in Wheatley’s job description.
Wheatley said he filed a police report after the heads showed up at his desk, and is now filing complaints with local and state authorities.
Families of deceased donate bodies to the not-for-profit to be used in the training of medical students at eight universities across the state, and mishandling causes the bodies to be unfit for use, Wheatley said at a news conference with an attorney Tuesday afternoon.
“The place is deplorable. It’s in shabby conditions,” he said. “If you’re in there for more than five minutes, if you start walking around, you start to stick to the floor.”
AGA writes on its website that it aims to “help donors and their families make their donations with the confidence that the AGA will observe the highest standards of responsiveness, respect, privacy and security.”
O’Connor said it is Wheatley’s responsibility to handle the bodies. The organization, formerly known as the Demonstrator’s Society, has been in operation for over a century.
Wheatley manages the “rack room,” or the room where bodies are held at AGA. He drives around to medical institutions, loading and unloading body parts from the tiered racking system in the AGA van. A QR system is used to identify body parts, which are embalmed, distributed for study purposes and then cremated and returned to families.
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine anatomy lab manager Casey Tilden sent an email the day before the heads appeared in Wheatley’s office, complaining about the conditions of the donors they received. “Donors,” or those who have donated their bodies for medical use, were covered with flies or contorted in such a way that they couldn’t be used, Tilden wrote in the email, which was provided to the Tribune.
“There are a handful of donors that were recently delivered with feet and hands that show signs of decomposition,” Tilden said in the message to AGA.
According to Wheatley, other universities have also emailed complaints.
Wheatley felt the heads were a method of retaliation in response to his concerns, he said.
David Fish, an employment lawyer and partner at Fish Potter Bolaños P.C., said he filed complaints on Wheatley’s behalf with the Cook County medical examiner’s office, Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation as part of an effort to clean up conditions at AGA. Copies of those complaints were provided to the Tribune.
In the complaints, Fish asked for an investigation into embalming techniques used at AGA.
“Mr. Wheatley believes that AGA should have, and utilize, a scale to weigh donors’ bodies to determine the amount of embalming fluid required to ensure they are not subject to premature rotting and shorted usefulness,” he wrote.
Fish said he does not want to file a lawsuit but hopes AGA will take Wheatley’s complaints seriously.
“I’ve never seen a situation where heads were left at somebody’s desk. That is unspeakable,” he said. “Those are people’s family members. They’re not a joke … They gave their body to donate it to science.”
Wheatley looked into cameras, shaking, as he recounted his working conditions. He works as many as 12 hours a day, he said.
“I’m beat up,” said Wheatley. “This job has severely weighed on me over the years.”
He has three children — ages 11, 6 and 1 — and said he’s worried about his job security after submitting feedback to O’Connor. His family works in funeral homes and he said he got involved in the industry three years before starting at AGA.
Wheatley confirmed he hasn’t been at work since May 30. He’s still an employee and is taking paid time off, he said at the news conference.
O’Connor said sometimes AGA receives bodies that are “twisted” or “emaciated.”
“We accept every donor,” he said. “And we make a commitment to the donor that their bodies will be studied.”
The issues at AGA need to be addressed before Wheatley will feel good about getting back to work, he said. Wheatley said since taking time off, his wrists and back are feeling better. The only thing that hasn’t improved is his anxiety, he said.
“This is the only thing I can think about. I can’t even sleep. Just the only thing I can think about, running it over and over in my head. I can’t believe this is happening,” Wheatley said.
Without action, people are going to rot away, Wheatley said.