Just outside the operating theater, the organizers of a medical conference wore Minnie Mouse ears. Inside, as doctors practiced on three cadavers, blood from one of the human specimens seeped through a layer of wrapping.
“They leak,” a lab technician said of the bodies.
The sessions, held last month and attended by a Reuters reporter, weren’t at a hospital or medical school. They were part of a so-called cadaver lab – and the setting was a Florida resort. It was one of scores of such events over the past six years that have been held at a hotel or its convention center.
In this case, doctors practiced nerve root blocks and other procedures on cadavers in one of the Grand Harbor ballroom’s salons at Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts convention center. Online, Disney refers to its ballrooms as “regal and resplendent.” They’re often used for wedding receptions.
Disney did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Medical training in the United States is usually done in secure lab facilities equipped specifically for such seminars. But not always. Reuters identified at least 90 cadaver labs that have taken place since 2012 at hotels or their convention centers in dozens of cities, from New York to San Diego. Some of the biggest names in the industry, from Hilton and Hyatt to Sheraton and Radisson, have hosted the events.
The cadavers used in these seminars are often procured through body brokers, organizations that acquire bodies donated to science and then sell or rent the parts for use in medical research and training.
Body brokers generally refer to themselves as “non-transplant tissue banks.” They are distinct, however, from the organ-and-tissue transplant industry, which the U.S. government closely regulates. No federal law covers the sale or lease of cadavers or body parts used in research or education, such as those operated on at the Disney center. That industry is virtually unregulated.
Similarly, there is little, if any, regulation governing where seminars featuring cadavers and body parts can be held, although the federal government does have rules on how labs handle medical waste and bloodborne pathogens.
The World Health Organization says that, “in general, dead bodies pose no greater risk of infection than the person did while they were alive.”
To ensure safety, event organizers say they screen the cadavers for infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis.
Diseases such as tuberculosis, however, cannot always be identified through screenings. And some medical professionals worry that some cadavers could spread antibiotic-resistant staph infections or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain condition.
When the deceased are cut open, there’s an increased risk of a disease being transmitted to others, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“I will be the first to acknowledge there have been no big outbreaks or situations that have occurred yet from a dead body,” Osterholm said. “But I am absolutely convinced it’s just a matter of time.”
There has been at least one instance of a body broker who allegedly failed to report positive results for hepatitis B in a cadaver sent to a medical conference. In 2011, broker Arthur Rathburn provided the head and neck of a diseased cadaver to a conference held at a Hyatt hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, authorities say. Although no one who attended the conference reported getting sick, Rathburn faces trial in January on charges of defrauding health care workers and lying to federal agents. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Hyatt chain has hosted at least 10 seminars that included cadavers since the 2011 incident, Reuters determined.
After Reuters asked about the cadaver labs, Hyatt spokeswoman Stephanie Lerdall said the hotel chain is now reviewing the guidance it provides hotels around “medical trainings of this kind.” She said Hyatt expects anyone using hotel facilities to “operate in a manner keeping with applicable health and safety protocols.”
By Elizabeth Culliford | Reuters
Photo editing: Steve McKinley
Design: Troy Dunkley
Edited by Blake Morrison