Md. Baby's Body Mistakenly Cremated

Akilah Austin  --  shown in March with her mother, Lisa  --  was born with a genetic heart defect. She received an artificial heart in January and a heart transplant in July, then died this month of complications from pneumonia.
Akilah Austin -- shown in March with her mother, Lisa -- was born with a genetic heart defect. She received an artificial heart in January and a heart transplant in July, then died this month of complications from pneumonia. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005

They had planned to bury 20-month-old Akilah Austin yesterday in a white-and-pink princess dress inside a tiny white coffin with pink ribbons.

The whole family would have been there. Her parents, Lisa and Marvin Austin, had spent countless hours by her hospital bed since she took ill with a genetic heart defect in January. Her aunts, uncles, grandmother and family friends wanted to be there, just as they had been when she was implanted with an artificial Berlin heart, then later with a donor heart.

Luca Vricella and other members of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center's cardiac intensive care staff had planned to go to say goodbye to the baby who survived two heart surgeries only to die of complications from pneumonia.

But the funeral plans were dashed after Akilah's parents arrived Friday at the Fleck Funeral Home in Laurel -- with pink hair bows and nail polish for their daughter -- and were told their baby had been cremated, relatives said.

"We just couldn't believe it," said Lucille Czechanski, Akilah's aunt, speaking on the parents' behalf. "After everything that Lisa and Marvin have gone through, then to have this happen. . . . Lisa and Marvin have lost the chance to say goodbye to their baby."

The parents were in seclusion yesterday.

Christopher Downey, marketing director for the funeral home, did not answer questions about the incident or confirm that the baby was mistakenly cremated.

"We regret that an unfortunate event has happened, and we are working with the family to make it right," he said.

Funeral director Shawn Wells refused to comment.

Czechanski said that the Austins had been told that there were two babies in the facility and that the other baby was to have been cremated.

The cremation was the final tragedy for the Austins since the night in January when Akilah turned blue as her diaper was being changed. Tests showed she suffered from a previously unknown genetic mutation called Cardiac Troponin I, which rendered her heart unable to pump blood effectively, Vricella said.

The baby was given priority status on a national waiting list for organ transplantation. To keep her alive until the operation, Vricella and other doctors at Johns Hopkins opted to implant an artificial heart in January -- making Akilah one of only 80 babies in the world to undergo this procedure. She lived with the artificial heart for 178 days, longer than any other American child, as relatives prayed for a heart. Finally, in July, a heart became available in South Carolina. The family received no information about the donor.


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