MU to take on medical investigations

Switch from private home will allow more space and safety.
Thursday, September 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:21 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 28, 2008

Between a serene pond and a stolid funeral home is a structure that serves as the medical investigator’s office for Boone and Callaway counties.

The building has been used as the medical examiner’s office since 1997. It’s also attached to home of former chief death investigator Jo Fountain.

In two years, however, the facility at 5609 St. Charles Road will cede its dual role.

Early last month, the Boone County Commission authorized a change in the contract with Fountain Enterprises to allow MU to assume responsibility for death investigations.

“The county certainly had no problem with the University of Missouri assuming the death investigation responsibilities,” said Boone County Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin. “Our role in this matter is to ensure that the citizens, law enforcement community, prosecutor and other agencies continue to receive first-class services when it comes to death investigations. I have no doubt that that the university will continue doing just that.”

Valerie Rao, the appointed medical examiner for Boone and Callaway counties, said many factors lead to the move. One was her desire for a more convenient facility for death investigations.

“Physically it is very difficult, for example if we have an interesting specimen, to travel the five, six or seven miles to come and for me to hold up the entire autopsy, especially when we’re very busy,” Rao said.

Rao added that much of the equipment she likes to use is too expensive for Fountain to afford and that the office was simply too small.

“It was a funeral home,” Rao said. “In order to make a funeral home into a medical examiner’s office, sometimes you need a lot more than what we have now.”

Fountain said the medical examiner’s new location at MU will keep Rao closer to her job. “(The move) allows her more access to more doctors for consultation, she has access to more equipment, she has access to a more state-of-the-art facility,” Fountain said. “It’ll be a good move for them.”

The new medical examiner’s office will be separate but adjacent to the MU Department of Anatomy. The probable location for the new facility will be on the

first floor of the Medical Sciences Building. Rao, too, said the building will be state of the art, and will meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

It will also have features absent from the existing location, including a ventilation system to protect workers doing autopsies, better lighting and accessibility to accommodate law enforcement. New tables and a camera system will also be put in place.

Studies to determine the cost and design of the new facility are under way. The project should be done within two years.

Overall, Rao said that the transition thus far has been smooth and that the change in location has been amicable.

“There are no hard feelings,” said Rao. “I think it was mutually acceptable that it proceeded in that direction, and Jo Fountain has been very, very good in this transition process.”

Still, Fountain has concerns.

“My only concern has been that it is a county office, and it’ll be moving into the University of Missouri,” said Fountain. “But I don’t think it’ll be a problem. I think they’ll handle it well and see to it that everything is kept separate.”

She also said that while she believes the new location will have the same amount of public accessibility as the old one, it might be more difficult to find on campus.

Fountain will work part time at the new facility when needed. She is no longer an employee of the medical examiner’s office or MU. Her contract will run through the end of the year and will be reauthorized thereafter. Her company receives about $8,000 a month for the use of her facility.

“Basically what I am is their landlord,” Fountain said. “I just rent the building to them. (For the next two years), this will be the medical examiner’s office, and they will use it until they get their facility remodeled at the university.”

While Fountain said she enjoyed being chief death investigation, she plans now to pursue a new dream.

“I’m going to dance. I’m going to open a studio in Columbia within the next month or two,” Fountain said. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and we move on at the time that we’re supposed to.”

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