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Body's absence rattles relatives

Michelle Patterson was already upset when she and her mom went to Merritt Funeral Home on Wednesday morning.

Her grandmother had died a day earlier, and it was time to make funeral arrangements.

Then the day got worse.

Funeral home employees, who she expected to know about the death, said it was news to them.

So where is my grandmother's body? asked a surprised Patterson.

Probably at Brooksville Regional Hospital, she was told. But the funeral home wasn't sure.

It wasn't until Wednesday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the death, that Patterson was assured her grandmother's body had been in the hospital morgue the whole time, Patterson said.

"It's just out-and-out careless," she told the Times. "It should not have happened."

The funeral home blamed the hospital.

The hospital disputed Patterson's version of events but would not comment on specifics, citing possible litigation. "The body was not lost at any time," said Yvonne M. Despard, director of planning and marketing. "I really wish I could say more, but I can't."

According to Patterson, this is what happened:

Doris Girard, 83 of Brooksville was admitted to the hospital Friday with pneumonia. She suffered a massive stroke Monday night and died about 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Wednesday morning, Patterson and her mother, June, got surprising news when they showed up at the funeral home.

"My mother was so upset," Patterson said. "Just the look on her face when the lady at the funeral home said, "You mean she's already passed away?' "

Worried, the Pattersons hurried to the hospital. They demanded to talk to administrator Hal Leftwich, who is in charge.

According to the Pattersons, he promised to take care of the situation but became hostile when they threatened to take their story to a lawyer or to a newspaper. "He said, "If you're going to do that, why don't you just get out of here?' He said, "You don't even need to be talking to me,' " Patterson said.

By midafternoon, the family learned from the funeral home that the body indeed had been at the hospital and was now at the funeral home.

Lynn Merritt, office manager at the funeral home, said hospital officials normally call the funeral home soon after a death.

In this case, she said, the mix-up may have involved an organ-removal team having come from outside the hospital to take eye tissue from Girard after death.

The hospital mentioned something about the team having left without telling anyone it was done, she said. Still, Merritt said, the hospital bears final responsibility.

Patterson, 35, now a nurse in Pasco County, once worked briefly in the emergency room at the Brooksville hospital. She said that she left willingly, and that Wednesday's dispute had nothing to do with her past employment. The hospital would not discuss her previous employment.

"I figured the body was probably at the hospital somewhere," she said. "But with them not being able to tell us, it was stressful."