And now we have this mess....
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Bodies stack up at Oklahoma examiner’s office
BY MATT DINGER The Oklahoman Comments 11 Published: February 21, 2010
Amid the turmoil surrounding the position of the chief medical examiner, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner quietly slips into further disrepair.
A lack of space and outdated equipment in the 30-year-old building is causing most of the problems, spokeswoman Cherokee Ballard said. Some days — especially Mondays — the number of bodies coming into the office exceeds its storage space.
"It’s gotten to the point where they have to stack people on the floor. No one would like to see their loved one like that, but on a busy Monday, that’s what we have to do,” Ballard said. Autopsies are usually conducted on weekdays, but the office receives bodies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Two tables in the autopsy room and some sinks and shelving in the toxicology laboratory are rusted. Tissue specimens are stored on racks in the building’s garage. Boxes of files top the full file cabinets lining the walls.
But files aren’t the only things the office is struggling to store. Eleven unidentified corpses were still in the freezers late last week, one of which has been there for six years, Ballard said.
"I talked to a woman today whose son died in June, and she still doesn’t have a death certificate,” Ballard said recently in her office, which is an old storage closet.
Some autopsies may take longer than others because certain test results take longer to get.
But the backlog is such that there are delays of more than a year in some cases, she said.
"We’re doing our best to keep going,” Ballard said.
So far, the Oklahoma City Police Department hasn’t been affected by the medical examiner’s backlog, Capt. Patrick Stewart said. The FBI’s Oklahoma City office declined comment on the issue while officials at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Oklahoma County District’s Attorney’s Office didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, chairman of the public safety and judiciary appropriations subcommittee, recently visited the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 901 N Stonewall, with committee member Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City. He said he was appalled at what he found.
"That situation is just absolutely unacceptable. What if that was your loved one? Would you really want them at the bottom of that pile? I think most people would find that objectionable,” Terrill said.
"For the longest time, you had Dr. Fred Jordan down there who ran a tight ship. Upon the departure of Dr. Jordan — and I’m not pinning it on one particular person — but things began to slip and slide downhill to the point where now to the independent outside view, it looks like it’s on the brink of cratering,” he said.
Terrill proposes that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner be moved to the University of Central Oklahoma campus, where the agency can lease a facility built to specification but also maintain its autonomy. This contrasts with a previous push by some to make the agency part of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
"That would create a very unique, one-of-a-kind synergy that cannot be found in any other state in the nation. It would be something for which Oklahoma would become known in a positive way, instead of a negative one,” he said.
But until that facility can be built, Terrill is proposing some funds be made available to hire more employees.
"There is an acute pathologist shortage. We were already two pathologists down at the M.E., and with Dr. (Collie M.) Trant gone, we are now short two in Oklahoma City and one in Tulsa. What that inevitably is going to mean is that the backlog is going to get worse unless immediate financial resources are brought to bear on the situation,” he said.
Trant, the state’s former chief medical examiner, was fired Feb. 5 by the board that oversees the medical examiner’s office.
Ballard also said a temporary worker hired to help with the paperwork backlog had to be let go because there wasn’t enough money to pay him.
"All these various agencies have been taking across-the-board cuts for quite some time. I don’t know how much more substantial of a cut that it is that they (the medical examiner) can take,” Terrill said.
"The vast majority of the people I met down there are doing their daily job to the best of their ability. Doing a job that not a lot of other people want or are willing to do and under some very difficult circumstances. I think we owe it to them, and to those folks that have lost a loved one,” Terrill said.