Why Can’t Linda Carswell Get Her Husband’s Heart Back?

After an inconclusive autopsy report, Jerry Carswell’s heart remains in a refrigerated cabinet in a hospital lab instead of being buried with him. In a mission to get it back, his wife learned the truth about the shocking flaws in the death investigation process.

By Marshall Allen from ProPublica

Why Can’t Linda Carswell Get Her Husband’s Heart Back?Dan Winters
None of the hospital employees involved in the Carswell case would answer questions from ProPublica. In a written statement, hospital officials said they provided good care to Carswell and that his autopsy was sufficient.

Linda Carswell, an English teacher at one of Houston’s elite private schools, said her family’s macabre saga has left her lonely and disillusioned. She has had to navigate complex establishments—medical and legal—while processing the shocking loss of her husband. Measured and proper, with black hair streaked by strands of white, she cannot seem to make peace with her loss.

Linda and Jerry, a history teacher and track coach, had been married for 33 years and raised two sons. She recalled how they would sit on the couch, her head on his chest, listening to the thump-thump of his heart. She is determined to get it back. “It’s not just a piece of flesh,” Linda said. “Your heart stands for love. It stands for who a person is.”

A scan performed when Jerry Carswell was admitted to the hospital showed that, in addition to kidney stones, he had a cancerous tumor on one of his kidneys. It was early-stage and not considered life-threatening. At times, he was given medication to treat intense pain. Records show he was administered the narcotic Demerol and the drug Phenergan, which can depress the respiratory system, in the hours before his death.

State law required that the hospital report Carswell’s death to the county medical examiner’s office because it was unexplained and unobserved and had occurred soon after he had received medical care. But it’s unclear whether this step was taken. Hospital records show that the night administrator made a minute-long phone call to the medical examiner’s office at 6:35 a.m.—about an hour after Carswell died—but the office later said it had no record of the call.

It may not have mattered. Medical examiners rarely investigate deaths at health-care facilities. Their resources are already stretched by homicides, suicides, and other suspicious deaths. They are seldom inclined to dig further if staffers at a medical facility ascribe a death to natural causes.

In court testimony, the night administrator at Christus St. Catherine said she had reported hundreds of hospital deaths to the Harris County medical examiner’s office, and it had never taken a case.

As she sat with her husband’s body, Linda Carswell was unaware of the hospital’s reporting requirement or that the medical examiner was supposed to assess his case. But she and Jordan said that no one at the hospital would answer questions about how Jerry had died. She knew Jerry had been administered narcotics during his stay and wondered whether the drugs had played a role in his death.

Linda said that when she asked Patty Elam, a daytime charge nurse, to call the medical examiner’s office to request an autopsy, Elam told her the office had already turned down the case. Elam declined to comment for this story but said in court testimony that she did not speak with Carswell about the call to the medical examiner’s office. Linda did not press the matter further, a decision she came to regret.

Linda Carswell was determined that Jerry’s death would not go unexplained, so she says she asked Barbara Lazor, a Christus St. Catherine administrator, whether a private autopsy could be arranged.

Carswell said the administrator told her a private autopsy could cost as much as $10,000. Lazor offered to have the hospital provide an autopsy for free, but Carswell felt uneasy about whether the hospital was being entirely truthful with her about Jerry’s care.

Carswell said Lazor assured her that the autopsy would be independent—performed by a pathologist at a different hospital, St. Joseph Medical Center. So Linda signed the consent form, checking off the box requesting a “complete autopsy.”

Later, in court, Lazor and Elam would deny ever speaking to the Carswells about anything related to the autopsy. The hospital employees would not comment to ProPublica.

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