2002-06-15 / Front Page

'They Left Our Father's Body To Rot'

St. John's Episcopal Hospital Under Fire After Family's Shocking Allegations
By Gary G. Toms

St. John's Episcopal Hospital Under Fire
After Family's Shocking Allegations
By Gary G. Toms


On June 1, the Conner family received a call from Jeremiah C. Gaffney, of Jeremiah C. Gaffney's Funeral Home, who was picking up the body to prepare it for viewing and funeral services. "I'm sorry, but I regret to tell you that there is nothing I can do with the body because it has decomposed. You will probably have to have a closed casket."On June 1, the Conner family received a call from Jeremiah C. Gaffney, of Jeremiah C. Gaffney's Funeral Home, who was picking up the body to prepare it for viewing and funeral services. "I'm sorry, but I regret to tell you that there is nothing I can do with the body because it has decomposed. You will probably have to have a closed casket."

The last several weeks have been very turbulent for the Conner family. In addition to watching their beloved patriarch, Henry Conner, wage a valiant battle against a severe form of lung cancer, Conner's wife, Rosie, and the couple's three daughters, Margaret, Malishia and Lakeyshia, have engaged in a number of disputes with St. John's Episcopal Hospital's nurses and administrators over the lack of care their father had been receiving.

"From the time I had learned of my father's diagnosis, I had so many questions that I needed answers to," says Lakeyshia Conner.

"For example, what were all previous doctor visits about? What sorts of examinations were performed? How could my father's doctor appointments be set so far apart after the first signs of this severe stage of cancer? And, why is it that just about every doctor that has examined my father asked us questions about my father's past health problems, when they should have reviewed his medical history before ever entering the room? He had been a patient at the St. John's Clinic for years. To this day, we have not received any answers."

The family noted that if it had not been for the compassion and determination of an intern at the hospital, their father's condition would not have been taken as seriously.

"The attending intern that examined my father during his last "routine" visit had to literally demand, over and over again, that my father be given immediate appointments for a series of test, which would've given them more insight as to what the problem was. The intern was told repeatedly, by the person who was in charge of scheduling the tests, that no dates were available, and insisted that the tests be conducted at a later date. I could see the embarrassment and frustration on the intern's face, and after challenging this person repeatedly, she was able to get my father an appointment within a few days," said Lakeyshia.

The nurses that cared for Conner were another bone of contention for the family. The three daughters gave accounts of how the ninth floor nursing staff acted rudely and unprofessionally while treating not just their father, but other patients as well.

"So many times we wanted to march to the nurse's desk and complain about the poor nursing practices and quality of care administered by nurses on the ninth floor of the hospital. The only reason we didn't was because we were afraid the staff would retaliate in some way against my father or other patients when we weren't there. We just didn't want our father or the other patients to have to endure any more ignorance, disrespect and mistreatment. By that I mean, very loud talking and laughing, and personal conversations amongst nurses and aides while administering medications and doing vital checks," stated Margaret Conner.

The enraged family goes on to say that the situation really began to deteriorate when they learned that Conner was not receiving the meals requested by the family, and that once food was sent, it would sit by his bed for hours without anyone coming to feed him.

"One morning, I had to sneak into the hospital through the emergency room just so I could feed my father. As I suspected, his food was sitting there getting cold when I arrived. There were days when food was not sent to his room at all," said Lakeyshia.

When doctors later informed the family that there was nothing more they could do to help the father, after extensive chemotherapy, they decided that they would work with a hospice home care group to try and help their ailing father. However, the hospital would not release Conner until proper placement of a feeding tube, and testing of the feeding machine to ensure proper functioning, had been completed. This would later turn out to be another traumatic experience for the family.

"By 48 hours, the feeding tube had not been inserted, and my father had not eaten in all this time. St. John's was letting our father waste away right before our very eyes," said Malishia Conner.

The Conner family, frustrated and distraught, note that they were held together by their faith and love of family. However, they would soon find out that their experience at St. John's Episcopal Hospital was about to get much worse.

On May 31, around 12:30 a.m., they received a phone call from the hospital. They feared the worst, and the hospital told them that the husband and father of three had died. They went to the hospital, and were surprised to see that he was still breathing. Conner appeared to be alive because he was still hooked to a ventilator, and when the family questioned one of the attendants about it, they were told, "Oh, it's okay. It happens all the time. You don't have any reason to be concerned." The family then went home to grieve the loss of their loved one.

The following day, June 1, the Conners received a call from Jeremiah C. Gaffney, of Jeremiah C. Gaffney's Funeral Home, who was picking up the body to prepare it for viewing and funeral services.

"I'm sorry, but I regret to tell you that there is nothing I can do with the body because it has decomposed. You will probably have to have a closed casket."

Stunned and angry, the Conner family immediately went to the hospital for answers; given the fact that the patriarch's body was in excellent condition when they last saw him. Hospital representatives gave conflicting stories on how the body had decomposed. One hospital staff member claimed the temperature gauge was not set at the right temperature. Another stated because of September 11, bodies were not being adequately removed from the hospital. The family would not accept the hospital's explanations.

In an attempt to find out what could have happened to cause the decomposition, within 24 to 48 hours, The Wave interviewed Jeremiah C. Gaffney, who took photos of the body and handled it personally.

"I have a simple answer. The body was just left out in an open area of the morgue and never placed in the refrigerated chamber. When I first saw him, he was green. I was totally shocked. There could have been various chemical agents or bacteria in the body that caused the rapid deterioration, but then again that may not have been the case. Regardless, the bottom line is the body should have been placed in a refrigerated area or room," said the funeral director.

Gaffney, citing his years of experience as a funeral director, went on to make other chilling comments about the Conner's situation and the hospital.

"This is nothing new for St. John's. This is not the first time this has happened. It happened 10 years ago with the Dill family, a very prominent family from Cedarhurst. The ironic thing about that case was that a member of the Dill family actually sat on the hospital's Board of Directors. They sued the hospital, but I'm not sure if the suit was successful. I believe it was. As a footnote, I can honestly say that within the last 10 years, there have been at least three or four cases like the Conner's. The problem is they don't have enough refrigerators in the hospital to facilitate large numbers of bodies, and this must be addressed," he continued.

Gaffney vehemently stated that per capita, and across the board, there are not enough refrigerators in most hospitals, and that hospitals must be more vigilant in their attempts to correct the problem.

"This was not necessary. No family should have to endure such pain. I will never forget the looks on the Conner family's faces. In this business, I've seen a lot of pain and suffering. This level of pain that this family is experiencing is unimaginable. The hospital should have made arrangements with me, or someone else, to pick up the body immediately. Someone should be put in charge of reaching out to families if the hospital cannot properly handle the bodies," Gaffney stated.

"The image of my father's rotted corpse has been branded into our minds forever. My family feels that the negligent and lazy staff has gotten way of control, and something needs to be done for the sake of the residents of Far Rockaway. To have them disregard the remains of loved ones because of a lack of storage space is unacceptable. Something could have, and should have, been done," said Lakeyshia, who was overcome with emotion.

The Wave contacted the Director of Marketing and Public Relations for St. John's Episcopal Hospital, Janet Talcott, who issued the following statement.

"St. John's Episcopal Hospital South Shore always takes measures to assure that proper procedures are followed relating to the disposition of patients who have died. We take the Conner family's comments very seriously. We sincerely regret their loss and offer our heartfelt sympathy to family members and friends."


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