San Diego pathologist accused of improperly harvesting children’s organs in Texas lawsuit
A San Diego physician whose firm was hired as a medical examiner in Texas has been accused in a lawsuit of harvesting body parts from deceased children not for medical reasons, but to boost his research prospects.
The lawsuit accuses Dr. Evan Matshes of practicing medicine in the state of Texas without a license. It also says he and his company, NAAG Pathology Labs PC of San Diego, terminated employees who complained about the practices.
Matshes declined to discuss the allegations in the litigation. His company issued statements that rejected all assertions that Matshes, the firm or its chief medical examiner, Dr. Sam Andrews, did anything improper.
The company said the lawsuit is being driven by former employees and others who lack medical expertise.
“We strongly deny that either NAAG Pathology Labs or Dr. Andrews have acted in any manner that is contrary to the best interest of the public,” the statement said. “We are confident that we will be exonerated of all claims of wrongdoing.”
The Texas Rangers state police are investigating the allegations leveled in the lawsuit filed by Tita Senee Graves, a Lubbock County prosecutor said.
Graves is a career medical technician who landed a job with the Lubbock County medical examiner’s office in 2015, after working for decades as an X-ray technician at a private laboratory.
She was fired Jan. 17 after she and others in the medical examiner’s office questioned what Matshes was doing with the bodies of deceased children, according to the lawsuit. She filed suit Feb. 20 in the 72nd District Court in Lubbock County.
“Ms. Graves and the other staff were disturbed by the autopsies of the infants,” the suit states. “The unnecessary harvesting of body parts for a pathologist’s personal research interests seemed wrong.”
NAAG Pathology Labs is a private company based in Sorrento Valley, and most of its Texas work is performed by about 10 employees in Lubbock County. It performs autopsies and other medical examiner services across the United States and other countries.
The company said it does not perform any medical research. Matshes has a second firm called the National Autopsy Assay Group that provides independent tissue and organ analyses.
In Lubbock County, medical examiner services have been farmed out to private contractors for years.
NAAG Pathology Labs took over the department on an interim basis in August after a former medical examiner vacated the post, the lawsuit states. The agreement was rewritten in October, and Andrews was named chief medical examiner.
Within weeks, the complaint says, NAAG began harvesting more human tissue during autopsies than was needed to determine causes of death.
“Dr. Matshes stated that he wanted to collect more tissues from those autopsies than had been done in the past because he needed the tissue for his ‘research,’” the suit states. “... The new protocol required the removal of the children’s brain, eyes, spinal cord, posterior neck, including vertebra, and the heart and lungs.”
Matshes, who lives in San Diego and travels to Lubbock County for work, performed two procedures in front of his employees, even though he was not qualified to do so in the state of Texas, the suit said.
“Dr. Matshes stated that he was acting as a ‘tech,’ not a doctor, since he was not licensed to practice medicine in Texas,” the complaint states. “Dr. Matshes made the incisions and removed the organs himself, while Dr. Andrews observed along with the staff.”
The company said there is nothing improper about removing organs from the bodies of decedents whose deaths are under criminal investigation. It also said that the procedure does not require a medical license.
“Dr. Matshes did not practice medicine during the procedure mentioned in the lawsuit,” the statement said.
NAAG Pathology Labs said the lawsuit and related complaints to the Texas Rangers and state medical board are the result of people’s lack of expertise.
“It is clear that some of the employees, who were not physicians or pathologists, didn’t understand the thorough process necessary for an autopsy that may be later challenged in court,” the company said. “Dr. Andrews ships some items to the San Diego lab because some specific expertise is not available in Lubbock.”
According to letters Matshes and Andrews each sent to Lubbock County Judge Curtis Parrish before the lawsuit was filed, the allegations are politically motivated by a newly elected county commissioner who is opposed to the changes that NAAG Pathology Labs implemented to professionalize the department.
“It is a fundamental expectation that I, as a forensic pathologist in the role of your appointed Chief Medical Examiner, be free of political influence, which includes being free from fear for my personal safety, the safety of my staff and free from the fear of all forms of retaliation,” Andrews wrote.
Barron Slack, of the Lubbock County district attorney’s office, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He said his office will wait for results from the Texas Rangers’ criminal investigation into the allegations before deciding on the next actions.
Matshes received his medical degree from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, in 2004. He was licensed by the California Medical Board in May 2017 and licensed in Texas prior to 2013. His application for a new license there is pending.
Andrews holds a valid Texas Medical Board license.
Matshes had performance issues in Canada, where he also worked as a medical examiner prior to establishing NAAG Pathology Labs. According to a 2012 news release from the Alberta Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, work performed by Matshes at the Alberta medical examiner’s office did not meet professional standards.
“The panel found the conclusions reached by Dr. Matshes to be unreasonable regarding either the cause of death, manner of death and/or other opinions,” the release said.
Matshes disputed those findings and sued for up to $30 million in damages to his reputation. The case is ongoing in an Alberta court.
In the Lubbock County lawsuit, Austin, Texas, attorney Kevin Glasheen said his client, Graves, was extremely disturbed by the new protocols imposed by NAAG Pathology Labs, once it took over the medical examiner’s office.
Lubbock County, which also provides pathology services to about 20 other rural counties across West Texas, has a troubled history associated with its medical examiner’s office.
In the early 1990s, then-Dr. Ralph Erdmann was accused of falsifying records, botching blood samplings, losing some body parts and performing “made-to-order” autopsies that would favor versions of events put forward by police.
He pleaded no contest to seven felonies and received a 10-year probation sentence and agreed to surrender his medical license.
Jeff McDonald writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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