Families need to know loved ones will be respected at morgue

It is with a heavy heart that I take up today’s topic — autopsies performed in Snohomish County.

I share my views on the grim subject, raised by recent news of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office, for one reason: Who else will speak up about how it feels to be someone whose loved one was autopsied there?

Noah Haglund’s article Wednesday about a former police chief being hired — for about $10,000 per month — to oversee operations at the county morgue is the latest Herald coverage containing grisly allegations.

The article revealed allegations contained in a December lawsuit accusing Dr. Norman Thiersch, the doctor in charge of autopsies and pathology work at the morgue, of pulling “the heart and lungs from a cadaver so as to splatter blood on plaintiff’s face.”

With all due respect to that complainant, my concern today is not for workers. And it’s not for taxpayers — although the ongoing need for county expenditures to address concerns at the morgue is discouraging.

I’ll be the one to speak up for the dead — people whose deaths resulted in the Medical Examiner’s Office determining autopsies were necessary — and for their grieving families.

My husband died May 31, 1998, after collapsing at the end of a softball game at Everett’s Forest Park. He was 45, and had played softball for years with a Herald team. At what was then Providence General Medical Center, an emergency room doctor said my husband had suffered “a very catastrophic event.”

In any case, my Jim was gone. I was stunned. That doctor’s words were not enough information for the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. I was told an autopsy would be performed.

During a time I now remember as a waking nightmare, I didn’t question the need for an autopsy. And I have no complaint about the way county officials treated me. It occurred to me only much, much later to wonder what the Medical Examiner’s Office would have been looking for in performing an autopsy. What was suspected?

A middle-age man collapsing and dying after rigorous exercise on a warm day is a sad event. Is it suspicious or unusual?

The autopsy found that my husband died of sudden cardiac arrest, the largest cause of natural death in the United States. The only distinct substance identified was caffeine.

It was a horrible day, the day after my husband died. I knew an autopsy was being performed. I tried not to think about it.

The Medical Examiner’s Office website says its responsibilities include investigating sudden, unexpected, violent, suspicious or unnatural deaths, and determining their cause and manner. Annual reports on the website detail why autopsies are done. “Family permission is not required by the Medical Examiner,” says the 2012 report, the most recent one available on the site.

In 2012, according to the report, 4,398 deaths were reported to the county Medical Examiner’s Office, and 391 autopsies were performed.

Concerns about the Medical Examiner’s Office go back several years. In 2010, the county looked into complaints from funeral homes about the condition of autopsied bodies. An independent review of the morgue in 2010 found problems with management and workplace behavior.

Last fall, a former death investigator with the office reached a $495,000 settlement with Snohomish County over workplace retaliation. Her lawsuit, which is separate from the one that surfaced in December, claimed that an angry Thiersch “unethically and unprofessionally yanked and ripped the heart and lungs from a cadaver.”

Because the case did not go to trial, the woman’s allegations were not proven in court.

The Medical Examiner’s Office does important and necessary work. And demanding jobs, which take an emotional toll, sometimes go hand-in-hand with black humor. A surgeon might tell a tasteless joke before making a life-saving incision.

There is no excuse for crossing that line separating human dignity from a base, indecent disregard for it.

Think of the families, hundreds of loved ones, who have no choice but to trust in the professionalism of the Medical Examiner’s Office. They — we — now read allegations not only about the treatment of workers, but about the treatment of human bodies.

It’s hard enough to lose someone you love. How can I not wonder: was my husband’s body treated with respect? It is painful to wonder, and I am not the only one.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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