The heart of 23-year-old Nicholas “Nicky” Picon of Daly City, who died in October, was retained by the San Mateo County Coroner and not buried
The heart of 23-year-old Nicholas “Nicky” Picon of Daly City, who died in October, was retained by the San Mateo County Coroner and not buried with his body.
REDWOOD CITY — Calling it an "extreme violation" of the public's trust and an affront to her constitutional rights, Selina Picon wants to know how the San Mateo County coroner could have held on to her son's heart.

Demanding Tuesday that the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors launch an investigation, Picon, a Daly City resident, spoke publicly at the board's regular meeting about the discovery that her 23-year-old son Nicholas' body was returned to her sans his heart.

"I know that people would be surprised and horrified to find out that the county coroner not only takes their loved ones' organs without their knowledge, but also retains them," Picon said. "The coroners have demonstrated serious professional misconduct. They are out of touch with people's feelings.

"They violated our trust when weallowed our precious child to leave with them. When did our son stop belonging to us?"

Nicholas Picon died Oct. 25 from a heart defect. He worked as a driver for Peachy's Puffs, the cigarette-and-candy-girl service in San Francisco, and for Local 510 Sign and Display, setting up tradeshows.

After reading online about organ retention, Picon called the coroner and learned her son's heart had been kept for further study after he was buried. They have since released Nicholas' heart, where it now remains in a jar of formaldehyde, sealed inside a box at her home.

Coroners have wide jurisdiction under state law to retain body parts of the deceased — including organs, tissues, bones, arteries and blood — for further examination or training. But coroners are not required to notify any next-of-kin that they've kept a piece of their beloved, or offer to return it.

The Times reported last week that the board's legislative committee voted Jan. 29 to push for state legislation that would require the coroner to notify next-of-kin that parts of a loved one are being retained and offer to return them when finished. Such information might lead a family to make funerary arrangements differently.

The change would not apply to bodies held in criminal investigations.

The push came at the behest of Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, whose district includes Daly City. Knowing that legislative change takes time, Tissier also plans to introduce a county policy change in the coming weeks.

"People don't know about this. The intent from my perspective is to make sure, in the future, that people do have knowledge," Tissier said. "Perhaps their practices would change if people knew that these actual actions do take place."

Coroner Robert Foucrault said that his office has retained 105 whole organs from 1,800 autopsies since 2004. Some were required for criminal investigations, some were at the request of families pursuing wrongful-death lawsuits, and some were cases like Nicholas Picon's — for further study.

"We don't just retain an organ because we want to," Foucrault said. "We do it to determine cause of death and bring closure to the family."

Foucrault said that, because of the Picon case, the coroner's office already has begun notifying all families of organ retention. He confirmed that he supports the effort to change local policy and to examine changing state law to allow for notification in certain cases. The first vice president of the California State Coroners' Association, Foucrault also plans to ask for support for change from the organization.

He defended his handling of Nicholas Picon's remains — "We did what we were charged to do by law" — but recognized his mother's concerns.

"We're sympathetic to Mrs. Picon's issues, and we're looking at how we address them," Foucrault said.

He said, however, that some families prefer not to know the details regarding their loved one's body parts, and that the change already instituted at the coroner's office has gotten mixed reviews.

"It is something that keeps resurfacing, and I think we're doing the right thing by looking at how we do business," Foucrault said. "You have to balance religious beliefs, the law and what we're charged to do. It's a difficult balance."

Debra Maher, the mother of 16-year-old Nicolas Maher, was infuriated when she received a letter from the coroner that nine specimens no bigger than the size of a sugar cube were retained from her son's body after he died Feb. 17. The cause of his death still has not been determined, but she said a preliminary diagnosis was "pulmonary insufficiency," a dysfunction of the pulmonary valve of the heart.

Nicolas Maher was a junior at Aragon High School.

Calling it "morally repugnant and an outrage beyond comprehension" that the coroner had retained her son's tissues, Debra Maher, a San Mateo resident, called for an investigation, a formal apology and more accountability.

"There should be no guessing what happened to my son's body parts," Maher said on Tuesday. "I now wonder if the ashes that I have of my son are all of him, part of him, or even him at all."

She and Picon have considered taking their cause to Sacramento and lobbying not just for notification, but consent.

"This is not simply a personal outrage, but a public outrage, especially for the unknown number of people who are unaware that this is taking and has been taking place involving the bodies of their loved ones," Maher said. "As if losing them to death isn't devastating enough."

Staff writer Rebekah Gordon can be reached at (650) 306-2428 or rgordon@sanmateocountytimes.com.