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Hidden in a Heart, a Discovery ‘Beyond Belief’

Linda Carswell hoped a lab test might bring closure after her husband’s mysterious death in a Texas hospital. Then came the unimaginable results.

Linda Carswell poses in her home with a photo of her husband. (Sharon Steinmann/ProPublica)

Linda Carswell thought her quest to recover her husband’s heart had come to an end. Finally, after almost a decade, she would be able bury it with his other remains. She could have peace of mind.

Instead, the saga has taken a macabre twist that she calls, “beyond belief.”

ProPublica readers may remember Carswell’s story. Her husband Jerry, 61, unexpectedly died after being admitted for kidney stones at a Texas hospital in 2004.

His family pushed for an autopsy, which proved inconclusive. But during the procedure — and without Linda Carswell’s consent — Jerry’s heart was removed and retained by the hospital.

It took a lawsuit and years of wrangling to get it back so it could be buried. Distrusting the hospital, however, Carswell first had the heart tested by forensic experts.

Now the results are back. And they are more disturbing than the widow ever imagined.

The heart contains no human DNA, a dismayed Carswell told ProPublica this week.

The lack of DNA could be due to the way it was preserved, or the “real possibility that the heart submitted was not human,” according to the forensic biologist who did the analysis.

Carswell said that she can’t, in good conscience, bury the tissue. She’s not even sure what it is.

“It could desecrate the grave,” Carswell said.

The setback brings an unsettling lack of resolution to the mystery of Jerry Carswell’s death.

He died shortly after receiving a dose of narcotics on the day he was supposed to be discharged from Christus St. Catherine Hospital in Katy, Texas.

Within hours, Linda requested a complete and independent autopsy to see if the narcotics played a role. Hospital employees steered her to a pathologist at St. Joseph Medical Center, then owned by the same company. The autopsy did not determine why Jerry died and did not include drug tests.

Carswell sued and won a $2 million jury verdict for fraud. The verdict was upheld on appeal, but Christus is asking the court to rehear the case. Christus officials declined to comment for this story.

It wasn’t until about two years after her husband died that Carswell even realized he had been buried without his heart. She found out from a legal deposition, in which the pathologist said he cut out the heart, or at least a portion of it, and kept at St. Joseph Medical Center.

Linda said she was horrified to think of her husband’s heart in the hands of the people who had made it impossible for her to know the truth about his death.

The hospitals fought the return of the heart tissue, saying it could be important evidence in the ongoing legal battle. Christus has maintained that the heart could be tested and would show that Jerry died of a heart attack. Last August, the appeals court determined it should be returned to the widow.

So on Nov. 19, representatives from a funeral home picked up the two small plastic buckets containing the remains from St. Joseph and sent them to NMS Labs, a forensic laboratory in Pennsylvania, that Carswell had hired.

The lab report said the samples produced no DNA profile and that no conclusions could be drawn about the material. The forensic biologist wrote in a subsequent email to Carswell’s attorney that if the heart was preserved in formaldehyde it could break down the DNA.

Alternately, it’s possible the heart was kept in some other substance, the email said. A final possibility is that the heart tissue is not human, the biologist wrote.

“At this point there is nothing further we can do with the heart sample,” the email said.

Erin Lunceford, the attorney for St. Joseph, said she has no idea why the heart had no DNA. The hospital is under different ownership, she said, so the heart was merely in the current owner’s possession, she said.

Earlier this month, Carswell’s attorney filed a petition in Harris County District Court that could allow her to question hospital officials to find out why the tissue sample contains no DNA. The heart remains at NMS Labs for now.

From the beginning, Carswell said she has only wanted to know the truth about what happened to Jerry and to lay his heart to rest with his other remains. With the latest DNA findings, she said she may never know that the heart is his, meaning he may never be properly buried.

“Most of all it just hurts, it really hurts me,” Carswell said. “I felt it was right to get Jerry’s heart returned to us, to our family, so we could bury the heart and get it out of their hands.

“I couldn’t think of just leaving Jerry’s heart,” she said. “So it’s like a slap in the face.”

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