Grim job needs both strong will, stomach

The local medical examiner will hire another death investigator for the first time in 11 years
Monday, July 16, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Can you be available 24/7, 365 days a year? Do you like to feel your skin crawl? Ever seen a dead person outside of a funeral?

The Boone and Callaway County Medical Examiner’s Office is searching for another death investigator for the first time in 11 years, and academic background is less important than a strong constitution — specifically, a cast-iron stomach and a sense of duty.

“A lot of people think this sounds exciting, but you have to have a really strong mind,” said Dori Burke, the current death investigator.

“All I see is death,” she said flatly, in her file-filled office in the Medical Sciences Building. “We don’t save people. I see the final result.”

Deputy Medical Examiner Carl Stacy, who joined the office in December 2006, doesn’t mince words about what the job entails.

“Ms. Burke is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he said.

And you never know what to expect at a scene. Even after hundreds of calls, she still sees things that make the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

“It catches up to you,” Burke said.

It’s especially unnerving when the call is in Callaway County, she said.

“My family lives in Callaway County, too,” Burke said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be anybody I know.”

The medical examiner’s office handles roughly 1,000 cases a year, though many cases can be resolved over the phone. Of the 1,000 cases, close to 300 of them result in autopsies if Chief Medical Examiner Eddie Adelstein and Stacy decide one is warranted. The office will usually attempt to determine cause of death without an autopsy, but in certain cases, an autopsy is state-mandated, Stacy said.

The range of the office isn’t limited to Boone and Callaway counties. Fifty percent of their work is contracted from surrounding counties, Stacy said.

The result is a pretty heavy workload for one person.

“I would think a minimum of two death investigators would be necessary in a town like Columbia, especially when MU is in session,” said Mary Fran Ernst, director of medico-legal education at Saint Louis University and death investigator for the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office. The increase in population that is young and engages in risky behavior leads to more unnatural deaths, she said.

Though a death investigator does not perform autopsies, his or her input helps the medical examiners understand what happened, Ernst said.

The new hire will be trained for six to eight months by Burke, who will become chief death investigator.

Getting to know the local law enforcement agencies that the office works with, and learning the order and paperwork the job requires are also part of the training. Toxicology reports, autopsy photos and notes from death scenes all must be cataloged, carded and filed.

It’s a crucial part of the work, said Ernst, who gives lectures with titles like “Blood-Splatter Interpretation” and “Are You SURE It Is a Natural Death?”

“Being thorough and accurate is how we put the dead first,” Ernst said. “Being able to tell a family exactly what happened is the best thing we can do. If you don’t answer all the questions, they will always wonder.”

Though they work closely with law enforcement agencies like sheriff’s departments, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and local police, the medical examiner’s staff maintains complete independence.

“Most police officers don’t have a medical background and are not trained to investigate death,” Ernst said. “Death investigators are neutral from the law enforcement agencies — they kind of act like quality control.”

The core of the work is not at the scene, but after the initial police investigation.

“I do what I can to help the families, to help them get through this,” Burke said. “When I lose my compassion for the job, I’ll stop doing it.”

Contact the Medical Examiner’s office at 474-2700.

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