The body of a 25-year-old District man with AIDS remained in his basement bedroom for more than six hours on Monday because a medical technician and police refused to handle it, a stalemate that was resolved only after D.C. Public Health Commissioner Andrew D. McBride drove to the apartment, donned gloves and an apron and helped remove the body.
The delay in removing the body has set off a furor in the city as officials try to explain why educational efforts about AIDS apparently have not worked. But several of the 12 city employes responsible for removing bodies said the incident was inevitable as they have refused for several months to handle AIDS deaths -- sending one of three supervisors instead -- to protest the lack of hazard pay.
"One of the two medical technicians on duty [in the medical examiner's office] refused to go because it was an AIDS victim," said Charles Seigel, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services. "The other one did go and decided on the scene based on the condition of the body" that he needed help.
"He asked [police], but the police said if the medical technician refused to do it," they would too, Seigel said.
Police and health officials met Tuesday about the incident and it was clarified that it is the responsibility of the medical examiner's office to remove bodies.
Although police officers sometime assist in removals because often only one technician is available, police spokesman Lt. William White said the police union could file an unfair labor practice if police officers were ordered to perform duties outside of their responsibilities. White confirmed that Assistant Police Chief Isaac Fulwood told officers that night they did not have to assist with the body's removal.
The stalemate over removing the body of Michael James Lanier took place shortly after his mother discovered her son unconscious about 2:45 p.m. and dialed 911 for fire and rescue officials, according to several people familiar with the incident. After the rescue squad determined Lanier was dead, homicide detectives were called, as is usual when a person dies at home. Lanier's doctor, Dr. Frederick Barr, was called by city officials and he related his patient's diagnosis to them, which included acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Problems arose after police called the medical examiner's office to remove the body and a technician on duty, Carl King, one of two shop stewards, refused to go. His supervisor, Louis Rogers, drove to the scene, the 2200 block of First Street NW, but did not remove the body until several hours later, after police asked the mayor's command center to call McBride for help in resolving the dispute.
"There were at least seven city vehicles clogging the street and everyone was just sitting out there talking into their radios," said Jim Potter, a volunteer from the Whitman-Walker Clinic who had been serving as a "buddy" to Lanier since October. "I kept asking what the holdup was and the police said they had their procedures."
Potter and several members of Lanier's family sat in the apartment's living room throughout the afternoon and evening, grieving over the death and waiting for city officials to act, Potter said. "The family was put through much more than they should have."
A lawyer hired by the family said no one wished to discuss the incident at this time.
McBride, who was unavailable yesterday, decided to drive to the apartment himself after being called at 7:55 p.m., according to an aide. "Rather than scouting around for someone else, he just did it himself," said Seigel.
McBride and Rogers moved the body to the medical examiner's van, where it was taken to the city morgue for autopsy.
Jim Graham, director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which had arranged home health care and companion services for Lanier, said he called McBride to thank him for his "very dramatic" response. "This is an example of a real working commissioner of public health," said Graham. ". . . We have encountered this type of thing all along, but golly, could this still be happening in 1986?"
Both Potter and Barr said that those unfamiliar with the physical damage that AIDS causes might have been frightened by the sight of lesions, which are a usual symptom of the disease. "The skin tumors may have been frightening to the uninitiated," said Barr, "but they were not a significant hazard."
Police spokesman White said police officers did not have protective clothing, another factor in their decision not to handle the body.
James Sampson, business manager of Local 960 of the Federal Employees and Transportation Workers, which represents technicians in the medical examiner's office, said the workers, who are paid $12,000 to $15,000, unsuccessfully requested hazard pay when dealing with deaths involving AIDS.
"Short staffing also causes this problem," he said, noting that only two employes, a technician and a supervisor, work during the evening and early morning shifts. As a result, only one employe is free for removing bodies, creating a situation in which police and hospital attendants are asked to help.
A technician said the problem has not arisen before because most of the deaths have occurred in hospitals, where hospital personnel have assisted supervisors from the medical examiner's office.
The incident has prompted a meeting set for tomorrow between McBride and employes of the medical examiner's office, Seigel said.
It also has prompted police officials to plan extra training sessions on handling people with AIDS, White said. Both police employes and employes of the medical examiner's office received lectures and literature in the last year regarding precautions to be taken in dealing with AIDS.