Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Coroner Business as a Profession

I was interviewed for an article that will be used by “Bridges…the Student Success Company” to acquaint teens with the Coroner business as a profession. I liked it when they sent it to me for checking, so I thought I’d put it up here:

"As a coroner you also have to deal with the politics, administrative, and personnel issues that don't show up on CSI," says Dr. Richard
Keller. He is a coroner in Illinois.

"It is great work, but it is 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," says Keller.

One of the main responsibilities of a coroner is to determine the cause of death.

In one of Keller's cases, deduction and reasoning among all the staff in the coroner's office was necessary. They suspected that the man had died of cocaine intoxication based on circumstances and his history. But there was no blood or other body fluid available for testing to prove their suspicion. They found a solution.

"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 ... 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," explains

Keller is a physician who became a coroner to target the public health aspects of the job. He is interested in educating the public to help prolong life by avoiding similar untimely deaths.

"Certainly, learning and 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," says Keller.

Keller says that most science and medicine educational backgrounds are useful for future coroners [and their investigative staff].

"There are some good forensic science programs in various places, but there is also some coursework that has been thrown together to catch the wave of interest. Look for older, established programs," says Keller.

In Illinois, coroners are elected and only required to be 18 years old and registered as a voter. Keller is the first physician the office has seen since the 1940s. His deputies have two-year associate degrees in criminal justice or healthcare.

"As populations grow, the numbers of deaths also grow, necessitating increasing numbers of medico-legal death investigations and the personnel to do them. I am sure that there will be an ongoing increase in demand for more sophistication, training and education among this personnel," says Keller.

"Verbal and written communication is incredibly important and is one of the most important skills high school students can work to develop when thinking of this field," says Keller.

Dr. Richard Keller is a coroner in Illinois. "There will always be deaths and the need for investigating them. There is some trending nationwide to changing from coroner to medical examiner systems, as well as increased credential requirements," he says.

"There are other options for jobs in this field beyond coroner and/or medical examiner," says Keller. He adds that the Bureau of Justice reports 1,998 coroner and medical examiner offices nationwide.

"When I ran for office, I pledged to also investigate 'medical misadventures'. Just as our office obviously is there to serve [the deceased] 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," says Dr. Richard Keller. He is a coroner in Illinois and was faced with this exact circumstance and decision in real life.

There was a coroner's jury (a body convened to assist a coroner in determining the cause of death) in the case, and Keller told them that,
"The definition of homicide that I give to the jury is either a willful and wanton act, or recklessness on the part of someone, whether that's by their actions or by their inactions. Certainly, by that definition, this is a homicide."

The coroner's jury agreed with Keller, and ruled the woman's death a homicide. This meant that her death would be investigated further, including the hospital's practices.

"This is a social justice, a greater good issue," says Keller. He used the media attention that the case received to call for better care. "The quality of medical care must be improved. No more excuses about an overburdened system. Develop systems (quality) to ensure this never happens again."

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