Death is routine at hospitals, and so is the process that follows: Doctors and nurses call the dead's relatives, collect their belongings and store their remains.
At United Medical Center, the long-troubled public hospital in Southeast Washington, 70-year-old Bradford Brown's death was handled differently. His family members said they were not told his life had ended until they tried to visit him a week after the fact and found an empty bed.
What's more, they said, hospital officials lost track of his body for several days.
The events that ensued after Brown's death in late July, described by his relatives and discussed in a meeting with hospital officials that his daughter recorded and shared with The Washington Post, add a macabre subplot to the mounting troubles at the only hospital serving the poorest neighborhoods in the nation's capital.
"I've been trying to get information, and it's just a merry-go-round. I never get a straight answer," said Meiko Brown, the dead man's 43-year-old daughter. "It's absolutely crazy. I've never heard of anything like this."
Bradford Brown had lived in UMC's nursing home since 2015, when he suffered a debilitating stroke. On Aug. 2, his sister, Barbara Hunter, and Meiko Brown walked into UMC's lobby bearing a gift of ginger snaps and Lay's potato chips for their relative.
Before a wall covered with portraits of the hospital's board members, a receptionist told them there was no patient at the hospital named Bradford Brown.
Perplexed but not yet alarmed, the family rode the elevator to Brown's ward on the sixth floor, where a nurse spotted them and asked a colleague, "Do they not know he expired?"
Hunter, an occupational therapist with long experience in health care, interjected: "Expired, as in dead?"
As her 10-year-old began crying, Meiko Brown said, she gasped and started to scream. "I completely lost it," she said. "I couldn't breathe. It was like something else took over my body."
Brown's records indicated he died after he was transferred to the emergency room with breathing problems on July 26 and that his family was notified the same day.
Seeking an explanation, Meiko Brown and Hunter met two days later with hospital officials. UMC administrator Ola Fadairo could offer no insight into the mix-up but said officials were conducting an "investigation" of the incident and that it had been "an eye-opener" for the hospital.
"There are errors in this," Fadairo said, according to Brown's audio recording of the meeting. "Whoever is at fault, we need to do some remodeling and fix the problem."
He continued: "One thing I want to assure you is that we have taken steps to block this type of thing happening again. You've been a help to us, and we continually need your support and help, because we need to portray the image of this establishment. This is the only black hospital so far around here and we must do something to maintain it. . . . My sister, you've been loved. He has left a legacy for you. Hold on to that legacy. It is well. Ma'am, I feel you. It is well. Amen."
Fadairo promised the family a written report on the hospital's handling of the notification process in Brown's death, saying: "We're going to get to the bottom of this. This is not ending."
Reached by telephone Friday morning, Fadairo said the meeting had been the end of his involvement in Brown's case.
"I was just there as a supervisor who is trying to appease them," he said. Fadairo, who said he acts as a minister outside his hospital job, said he had done his best to console Meiko Brown and Hunter but had no idea what had become of the inquiry into whether Brown's next of kin were properly notified of his death. That was the duty of his colleagues in the nursing home, he said.
"I have no clue," he said. "I did not pursue the investigation."
The only person in Brown's circle who recalls speaking to hospital staff on July 26 is An-Nas Osiris Bey, who said a nurse called to tell him Brown had been transferred to the intensive care unit, as he had in the past because of breathing problems. Bey said he later received a second call from the hospital nurse's station but that it was cut off after he answered and nobody picked up when he called back.
Bey is a close family friend who visited Brown frequently at the hospital and had given hospital officials his phone number.
In the recording of the Aug. 4 meeting, a nurse said she called Bey after Brown was dead and said during their brief conversation that she was "sorry for the loss." When Bey did not react to her comment, she said, she suspected he had not been notified and, rather than telling him, suggested he check on Brown at the emergency room.
"I said, 'So are you on your way to the ER?' In my head I was like, 'Maybe they haven't informed him about it. Let me not push,' " the nurse said. "I told my director of nursing, 'Hmm, it's like they haven't informed him yet.' "
Bey said he did not remember the nurse ever saying "sorry for the loss."
In response to questions from The Post, a UMC spokeswoman issued a brief written statement: "We have reviewed the circumstances of this case and confirm that the hospital followed all proper protocols including notification to the next of kin in a timely manner."
The Post spoke to each of Brown's four children, who live in the Washington region. All said they had been informed of their father's death by Meiko Brown when she learned upon her visit to the hospital.
His surviving relatives said their back-and-forth with UMC has aggravated their grief for Brown, a retired tailor known among friends and relatives for his sometimes baroque sweet tooth — peanut butter and jelly on pound cake was among his preferred dishes — and sense of humor. On his daughter's 25th birthday, he gave her an elaborately gift-wrapped rock with the words "Hard head, soft a--" written on it in indelible marker.
And this week, family members said, the saga took another exasperating turn.
Hunter, Bey and Meiko Brown said they were unable to view Bradford Brown's body in the weeks after he died, told by hospital officials that there was no convenient place to do so. They said they became suspicious about the circumstances of his death and hoped that if his body reached a city coroner — after 30 days, according to city law, hospitals must transfer unclaimed bodies to the medical examiner's office — an autopsy might be performed.
Bey said a hospital official told him the corpse would be sent to the medical examiner's office when the 30-day period ended last Saturday. On Monday, Meiko Brown called the medical examiner and was told the body was still at UMC.
For the next several days, she said, she continued to call the hospital, trying to ascertain the whereabouts of her father's corpse, but each time, hospital staff told her they were unsure and would have to call her back.
On Thursday — the same day The Post called hospital officials with questions about the case — Bey said he finally received a call from the medical examiner's office telling him the body had arrived that afternoon.
It's far from clear that the medical examiner's office will probe more deeply into Brown's cause of death, because such scrutiny is typically reserved only for suspicious cases.
But Brown's relatives said that regardless of what happens, they hope for some understanding and closure now that Brown is no longer in the custody of UMC.
"We haven't even seen his body yet," Bey said. "We don't even know if he's really dead."