Friday, May 30, 2008

They Ask Questions

I am a writer for Bridges Transitions. I am researching an article about Coroners and Medical Examiners. The idea is to let our young readers know what this career is all about, and how they can pursue this career if it interests them.

Bridges Transitions is the leading provider of career and educational planning solutions. Our service is used for career development in thousands of North American middle and high schools, libraries, employment centers, military sites, post-secondary schools, and corporations. We provide comprehensive work-related articles to help our readers with important career choices. For more information about Bridges Transitions, please visit the corporate site

Interview Questions

1. What do you like most about your job? (What makes you feel passionate or excited about what you do?)

Certainly investigating all the different ways people die is interesting and exciting, but by the same token getting out and talking to folks (particularly youth) about our work and how they can forestall their own death is really great as well.

2. What is the hardest part of your job?

Dealing with the deaths of children and teens (it strikes close to home) and having to tell their parents of their death (kids shouldn’t die before their parents.

3. Would you encourage people to get into work like yours? Why or why not?

It is great work, but it not for everyone. It is difficult work mentally and physically. The deaths of kids, dealing with a decomposed body, or a gruesome death are all tough. Equally tough are working in the cold, rain, mud, and all the locations and conditions that can surround a death.

As Coroner you also have to deal with the politics, administrative, and personnel issues that don’t show up on CSI.

4. Could you share a story about your work? For example, when you are older, what stories will you tell about what this career has done for you and what you have done for others? What experiences have you had at work that stand our in your mind?

We had an individual who died outdoors and was found 6 weeks later. When he was found he was badly decomposed, odiferous and consumed by nature and maggots. We could only identify him because his distinctive tattoo had “survived”. To find his cause of death required deduction and reasoning among all the staff. We suspected he had died of cocaine intoxication (based on circumstances and his history), but there was no blood or other body fluid available for testing. So we used a blender on the colony of maggots that was where his brain should have been (long before the somewhat similar CSI episode). On testing the resultant mass (which looked a bit like a chocolate malt) in our toxicology laboratory, we found that he had indeed died from the use of cocaine. The maggots were positive for cocaine that they had acquired by consuming him.

5. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have a category specifically for coroners. Can you estimate how many coroners work in the US? Or in your State?

There are 99 Coroners in Illinois and 1 Medical Examiner. In my office I also have 7 Deputies/Investigators, 1 Toxicology Laboratory Supervisor (Analyst) and her 1 assistant, 2 Secretarial personnel (Executive Assistant and Secretary). There are other options for jobs in this field beyond Coroner and/or Medical Examiner.

The Bureau of Justice reports 1,998 coroner and M.E. offices nationwide.

6. In your opinion, what is a fair representation of the salaries of Coroners?

Coroner salaries in Illinois range from $10,000 to $116,000 per year.

7. In your opinion, how is the employment outlook for future Coroners? Are there any trends affecting this career?

There will always be deaths and the need for investigating them. There is some trending nationwide to changing from Coroner to M.E. systems, as well as increased credential requirements.

8. What advice could you offer a young person interested in becoming a Coroner who is trying to decide on an educational pathway?

There are some good Forensic Science programs in various places, but there are also some coursework that has been thrown together to catch the wave of interest. Look for older, established programs. Otherwise most science educational backgrounds and medicine are useful. In Illinois the only requirements for Coroner (an elected position) is to be 18 and a registered voter

9. What is your educational background? What career path led you to your current position?

I am a physician who came to this targeting the public health aspects of the job (working at forestalling death)

10. What are the physical requirements for the job? Could a person with physical limitations or other special needs become a Coroner?

A Coroner, but likely not a Deputy/Investigator (see above).

11. Are Coroners ever placed in situations that require tough decision-making? What is a possible dilemma, and what are the options? (For example: can you think of a time you had to make a tough decision on the job? What did you do in the end?)

As an example, I was vilified (and praised) nationwide for this case (not that there are very many this high profile):
"Woman's Heart Attack Death Ruled a Homicide"
I got 67 emails last Thursday from all over the US after a link was placed on the WomenHeart website about a recent death here in Lake County and the inquest jury’s verdict. The death was of a 49 year old female who presented to a local ER with 10 out of 10 chest pain, shortness of breath and nausea. She died waiting in the waiting room, 10-20 feet from the care she needed to interrupt her heart attack. The jury came back with a verdict of “homicide”. It was the jury’s feeling, and certainly mine, that this case demands a change, an improvement, in the system that allowed this woman to die on a couch in a waiting room after a 2 hour wait. The emails I received reinforced that opinion.

Our country should not have a healthcare system that fails so many in our “community”. It is obviously a system problem and it must be addressed before it kills again. No one should “hang” for this death or any individual death that is a result of a system problem, but we must call attention to the problem that is killing folks. We must demand change. We must demand quality healthcare. Individual malpractice suits are not affecting the system, so we must find other ways to bring this discussion to the fore.

…The lead story for the December 2006 Emergency Medicine News (not avaialble online) is headlined: “Homicide Charges Against ED Stun EM”. It is a story based on the death of Beatrice Vance and our Coroner’s jury verdict of “homicide” (there are no “charges”).

… The homicide verdict is not an attempt to destroy a hospital or all ERs (as one emailer suggested), but the honest verdict of a jury of 6 that there was a “gross deviation from the standard of care” and that the inaction in this case was “reckless”. By our definitions of manner of death that is “homicide” (again recall that does not mean criminal homicide).

When I ran for office, I pledged to also investigate “medical misadventures”. Just as our office obviously is there to serve decedents who can no longer serve themselves, just as much we are here to protect the living residents of Lake County and to forestall death when we can.
(Material from my blog,

12. How important is communication in this field? Please explain.

Communication verbally and written is incredibly important and is one of the most important skills high school students can work to develop when thinking of this field.

13. We provide high school students with a math problem that might be used by people at work. How important is math in this career? Could you give an example of a situation or problem that requires you to use math on-the-job?

Probably the most common math problems we do are figuring out how old someone is at the time of their death (not as easy as it might first appear). We use math in the pharmacokinetics of drug overdoses, crash scene investigations and other instances esoteric and common.


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Dr. Richard Keller said...

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