Friday, November 16, 2001

Coroner's office

Time to respect the living

        It is amazing to me that an organization that works with human remains so intimately can have so little understanding of their connection to the living.

        Dr. Carl Parrott, Hamilton County's coroner, said his office does not tell families when a loved one's body parts have been retained after an autopsy because he doesn't want to upset them. This amazing remark came during a press conference Wednesday in which he tried to explain the case of 77-year-old Bertha Pruitt.

        Mrs. Pruitt died following an accident, while she was being taken to the hospital by a private ambulance for a dialysis treatment. During her autopsy last December, her brain was removed for study. The coroner's office didn't bother to tell her family that they never put it back. Once the autopsy was completed, the brain was sent out for incineration. The family didn't learn of this until a couple of months ago when their attorney read the final autopsy report.

        When Dr. Parrott says it is his policy not to upset grieving families with such details, I wonder where he has been since Sept. 11. Is he the only person in America who did not watch the news coverage of the rescue and recovery efforts going on at Ground Zero? Did he miss the reports of family members clutching photographs, standing five and six deep at the scene, hoping that the workers would find some trace of a loved one? Those “traces” often have been just that — fragments of what were once living, breathing people. There have been funerals in New York where the remains could fit easily into a shoe box.

        Human remains aren't insignificant details to grieving families. They are tangible evidence that the life lost once existed. Dealing with them, reverently and completely, gives the survivors a sense of closure.

        Based on what was said at the press conference, it seems clear the folks at the coroner's office don't get it. Dr. Daniel Schultz, the pathologist who did the autopsy on Mrs. Pruitt, said he would have been negligent not to have tested the brain. No one ever suggested that he shouldn't have done the tests, just that he should have told the family what that meant.

        Lou Rubenstein, attorney for the Pruitt family, said the funeral was Dec. 30. The brain could not be tested until Jan. 4. Had the family understood that, they could have decided whether to go ahead with the funeral or postpone it until after tests were complete so the brain could be returned to the body.

        Instead, they heard nothing from the coroner's office. The autopsy details were contained in a report that was filed away in the coroner's office in February. The family would never have learned of them had their attorney not obtained and read the report in connection with the civil wrongful death case he was handling for the family against the ambulance company.

        This is just the latest in a string of incidents that calls the humanity of the coroner's office into question.

        To recap: For years, this outfit conducted an undisclosed trade in corneas under Dr. Parrott's predecessor. The county settled the resulting lawsuit with the families of those whose eyes were being plucked for $5 million last fall.

        Then of course there is the infamous morgue photo shop in which bodies were posed and photographed with various props for an “art” book being put together by a private photographer. Although the county prosecuted and convicted the photographer, saying he didn't have permission to take the pictures, he got into the morgue because the coroner considered hiring him to make a training film on autopsies. A pathologist employed by the office also was convicted in the photo scandal, accused of helping the photographer with his art work.

        In the criminal case, Dr. Parrott and the county prosecutor managed to convince the jury that the coroner's office was officially ignorant of what was going on. It remains to be seen how much success the county will have with a jury in a civil suit, filed by the families of those who were posed for the pictures.

        Now with the case of Mrs. Pruitt, it is obvious once again that when it comes to dealing with the dead, the coroner's office doesn't understand the feelings of the living.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.


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