Lydia Reid sat graveside on the day that her infant’s body was being exhumed. Since his funeral in 1975, she’d come to the grave almost every week and almost always with flowers. But last month, she came only with hope for an answer.
Was her baby, Gary Paton, in that grave in Saughton Cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland? She had to know. And she had to watch.
Call it a gut instinct, but something about the baby’s burial 42 years earlier, along with events before and after, nagged at her over the years. She’d long sought permission for the exhumation. With the help of a member of Parliament, she finally reached this moment.
Reid watched the dirt fly and the grave unearthed with a heavy heart. Six feet down came the sight of a disintegrating coffin and a promising sign — a plaque bearing her baby’s name. It was misspelled: “Garry.”
Soon after, a noted forensic anthropologist studied the coffin’s contents: baby garments, fragments of the coffin and a little cross. But there were no human remains. No bones. Nothing.
“There was never any child’s remains in that coffin,” a distraught Reid, 68, told The Washington Post a few days later. “I can’t even be sure he’s dead now — that’s the truth of it.”
Her initial doubts about Gary’s burial proved justified, but with the deepening mystery came a fresh volcano of anguish and anger.
“Is my son alive?” she said, her voice trailing off. “I have to look at all possibilities. My son could be anywhere.”
She’s determined to find out the truth.
At the time of Gary’s birth, Reid was a 26-year-old mother of two. Her water broke late one night and she went into labor just 34 weeks into the pregnancy. “I’d never gone into labor early,” she said. “I was fearful of what would happen to my child.”
The next day, doctors performed a Caesarean section and Gary was taken to a special care unit. “They did not feel it was wise for me to see him,” Reid said. “They didn’t let me hold him. That’s the way it was is those days.”
The hospital insisted she stay in her bed to recover from the C-section. But she repeatedly went to Gary’s room, clasped his little fingers and spoke lovingly to him. “He actually used to open his eyes and look at me,” she said. “His eyes were not unlike mine, but more brown.”
Gary was not hooked up to machines, she said, but the hospital was “taking pus off his stomach with a needle day after day.” She learned why he was so sick six days after his birth, when she was told Gary was being transferred to the city’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children for an operation.
“He had surgery on his gut to remove the catheter that a doctor had left in him,” Reid said. “They said his heart stopped three times on the table. They told me he had traumatic brain damage. They said he couldn’t recover.”
Gary was put on life support. When they asked to turn it off, she agreed. “I just went along. We were all very ignorant in those days. I was just a young mom.”
But later, the hospital did a curious thing: Gary was put on life support again. Soon after, police officers knocked on the door of Reid’s home in the middle of the night to tell her that her that Gary was dead. The hospital asked permission to do an autopsy, but Reid flatly refused.
Because she wasn’t at the hospital when Gary died, she insisted upon a private showing at the funeral home, known then as St. Cuthbert’s. She arrived with burial clothes for Gary that included a shawl her mother had crocheted and a rosary to go inside his coffin.
“I went to the undertaker’s and was met with resistance,” Reid said. “They told me I couldn’t see Gary. But I wanted to put my son in his own baby clothes. I insisted.”
Eventually, they showed her a baby, “a huge child with blond hair,” she said. But Gary, born prematurely, was small and had dark hair. When she told them it wasn’t Gary, they told her she was mistaken and had “postnatal depression.”
“Everybody told me that,” Reid said. “I started doubting myself.”
On the day of Gary’s burial, she carried his little coffin to the grave herself. Almost immediately, she felt something was wrong. The coffin felt too light to have a baby inside. “I know what it feels like to hold a baby,” Reid said.
Before the funeral, she worried they were burying the wrong baby. Now she worried, they weren’t burying a baby at all. But everyone dismissed her. Things like that just didn’t happen, they told her. She went along, but said, “It haunted me for years.”
Her world turned upside-down again in 1999, when a scandal erupted in Britain involving hospitals secretly removing the organs of deceased patients, usually infants, purportedly for medical research. In many instances, this was done without the knowledge or permission of the parents.
In other instances, parents consented to allowing a “tissue sample” thinking pathologists were taking a cell sample or, say, a slice of the liver. When they learned their babies had been gutted and buried without the organs, the public outcry was enormous.
British tabloids called it “organ snatching scandal.” It had been going on since at least the 1950s, reports from numerous inquiries said.
The revelations first emerged at Bristol Royal Infirmary in England. In 1999, it was announced that nearly 170 “were buried incomplete” due to unwanted organ removals. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The numbers grew many times over as it became apparent that the practice was routine at many British hospitals.
At Alder Hey Children’s’ Hospital in Liverpool, “the bodies of all children going under post-mortem were systematically stripped of all their organs” under the Dutch pathologist Dick van Velzen, as the BBC reported. An inquiry found that he lied to parents, falsified records, statistics, research application, post-mortem reports and even failed to catalogue the organs removed. Its findings, known as the Redfern Report, said that over 104,000 organs, body parts and entire bodies of fetuses and stillborn babies were stored at 210 sites.
Margaret Brazier, a professor at the University of Manchester, served as chairwoman of her country’s Retained Organs Commission, which met from 2001 to 2004 and was charged with overseeing the return of tissue and organs of the deceased involved to their families. She told The Post that the scandal revealed a huge divide between the medical community and patients.
Scientists, particularly pathologists, insisted they had acted in good faith, usually for research purposes. But some just couldn’t understand the outcry or why people “got so bothered by a corpse.”
“The remains were important to some people because of faith or they simply wanted their child buried whole,” Brazier said. “Cold rationality only takes you so far,” she said of the medical community. “You have to take into account how these individuals feel.”
When scandal rocked Scotland in 2000, Reid was in denial at first. Surely, this didn’t happen to Gary. She called the hospital and was assured his organs hadn’t been taken. But later, when she asked for his medical records, she learned that wasn’t true.
She immediately thought about his burial. Had the pathologists lost her baby’s body? Was that the reason for the mix-up at the funeral home? Where was Gary?
She reached out to other parents. They wanted their children’s medical reports, too, but many times they came back with critical information blacked out. They wanted the organs back to bury with their babies. And they wanted stricter consent laws put in place at hospitals so this could never happen to other infants.
Reid said hospitals told parents the practice was kept secret “for our own good.” Many Scottish parents sued, and roughly 70 of them received 5,000 pounds apiece, or roughly $6,700 dollars. But others, such as Reid, received nothing because the procurator fiscal, a kind of investigative coroner, ordered the post-mortem.
“Most of the parents weren’t in the least bit interested in compensation,” Brazier said. They sued because it seemed the only way to get the organs being withheld and forcing legislation to be passed so that it didn’t happen again.
Reid organized “Justice for Innocents” and became an advocate for parents as well as an unrelenting activist for change, even leading demonstrations. Once, she and another mother chained themselves to railing outside of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh for several hours. “I was arrested,” she said, adding, the police “had a heart.”
Scottish authorities asked a review group, led by an ethics professor, to investigate the scandal. The group’s 2001 “McLean Report” estimated that 6,000 organs were still being retained and recommended tougher regulations. While some parents accepted the findings, many did not, including Reid, who called it a “whitewash” and said the figures were grossly underestimated. The exact number of infants involved still isn’t known.
Eventually, some organs were returned to parents, but seldom at once. One family had four different burial ceremonies for their child because the organs and tissue samples came back “in bits and pieces” at different points in time, the Yorkshire Evening Post reported in 2002.
In Reid’s case, none of Gary’s organs had been found, despite the report saying they had been harvested. And now there isn’t even a body.
“Even if he is lying in a jar in a hospital somewhere I want to know,” Reid told BBC News after the exhumation. “If it is possible to get my son back, I want my son back.”
Following the exhumation, police launched an investigation. Scotmid Co-operative Funerals, which now owns the funeral home that handled Gary’s burial, said in a statement that the company offered Reid and her family “full support in what has been an extremely distressing situation for them.”
Reid says someone who worked at the funeral home and hospital surely knows what happened to Gary. She has made a public plea for them to come forward.
Gordon Lindhurst, a member of the Scottish Parliament who wrote a letter on Reid’s behalf to help her secure permission for the exhumation, said in an email to the The Post that she deserves to “have closure.” He recently pressed the matter publicly with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, noting Reid’s role in “leading the campaign which exposed how hospitals had unlawfully kept deceased children’s body parts for research purposes.”
Sturgeon, in turn, extended sympathies to Reid and offered “an assurance” that a “relevant minister” would contact her to “try to ensure that she gets the answers that she certainly deserves.” Last week, Reid met with the Aileen Campbell, the Government Minister for Health Minister, for a 30-minute session. “She listened to my story,” Reid said.
Reid initially didn’t go back to the cemetery after the empty coffin was found. But she returned last week for the first time.
“The grave is empty, but it’s all I’ve got,” she said. “I’ve got those flowers boxes there for Gary. He’s got to get his flowers. But it’s just a horrible, desolate place now. It just doesn’t feel the same any longer. It just feels awful.”
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