Coroner Benefits from Partnership with Forensic Pathologist
The Sheridan County Board of County Commissioners asked Coroner P.J. Kane and forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Bennett to attend their staff meeting on Monday, March 11 to update them on standard operating procedures for handling deaths in Sheridan County.
Dr. Bennett moved to Sheridan from Montana in 2015. Ever since, he has provided autopsies for the Sheridan County Coroner when needed. Though Bennett is an independent physician, he rents space at Kane Funeral Home.
Without Dr. Bennett, Kane said, Sheridan County would have to transport bodies elsewhere for autopsy.
When a death occurs in a hospital, staff has 24 hours to notify the coroner’s office so they can begin an investigation. Additionally, any sudden, unexpected, unattended, violent, and/or unnatural deaths call for an immediate investigation.
Dr. Bennett offers training in forensic pathology and provides support to coroners around the state and region. One of the issues facing death investigations nationally is a high rate of error in declared causes of death. For instance, cardiac arrest, a commonly listed cause of death, is not a cause but a type of death. Dr. Bennet said a study found that 40 percent of deaths at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, are given incorrect causes.
Unless a death is being investigated, these incorrect causes of death can go unnoticed. Often though, Kane said, the state Vital Statistics Department sends back a death certificate, calling for an investigation up to a month later.
“There’s 23 counties,” Bennett said, “but it might as well be 23 different states,” referring to the independence each county has regarding how death investigations are conducted.
Kane and Dr. Bennett would both like to see the procedures standardized eventually in order to keep things moving for families looking for closure.
Kane said he is lucky to have Dr. Bennett, especially because the autopsy rate has gone up because people can’t afford to go to doctor as often these days. Therefore, they don’t have a detailed medical history. Drugs also have become a more common factor in deaths. In general, more litigation regarding liability in car crashes and accidents at nursing homes has increased the necessity for autopsies.
Bennett pointed out that some Wyoming communities have faced competition between funeral homes for power over the coroner. Some have even built million-dollar neutral facilities to combat the issue, but we enjoy better cooperation in Sheridan County, Bennet said.
Commissioner Terry Cram commented that it has always seemed ridiculous to him for politicians with no medical or law enforcement experience to be in the role of coroner and even, in some cases, lead homicide investigations. Kane agreed and said when the state began to require coroners to have 40 hours of education, Wyoming lost half of its coroners who were primarily funeral directors.
Kane said one of the hardest parts of staffing is that it’s hard to teach empathy. With such a demanding job, 24 hours a day, the burnout rate is high.
For now, Kane uses deputies who are contract staff, but he said the county may have to consider offering them benefits at some point in the future as an added incentive.