Sheriff Coroner Eric Taylor writes about how his office handles death cases and how important they are to our community.
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One of the most important roles we play in this community is our role as coroner. In San Benito County, I not only have the role of your sheriff, but I am also the coroner and the marshal. Every sworn employee in my office is a deputy sheriff and deputy coroner. Many people do not fully understand this role and why we “do what we do” in cases of death. I expect my staff to be assertive, but compassionate whenever there is loss of life in our community. I hope this column will provide some clarity.
One of the things that makes our company great is the respect we show to those who have died. This tradition of delicate care and respect for our deceased is found throughout our great country. When a person dies here in San Benito County, our staff determine how the deceased will be “treated”. More than half of our deaths each year are from “natural causes”, or have a medical explanation. In these cases, we work with healthcare professionals to complete what is better known as a “medical report”. This means that either the doctor or the assistant coroner certifies the death on a death certificate without an autopsy. A simple example of this is a person with a terminal illness. When someone is in hospice care, or under the care of a doctor for something terminal, and they die, we determine the death was natural. So the death certificate would state that the cause of death was lung cancer, for example. These deceased are transported directly to the morgue of the family’s choice.
If that same terminally ill patient were killed in a car crash, we not determine that the death was natural or related to cancer. It goes without saying that dying in a car accident is not a “natural” way of dying. In those cases, we would have an autopsy performed by a licensed forensic pathologist. More than likely, the cause of death would be blunt trauma in this case. But this determination would be supported by medical / forensic evidence in a pathology report.
Our county has a contract with the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner’s Office for forensic pathology services. Our county does not employ our own pathologist. This community can be assured that our Chief Medical Examiner, Dr Jordan, and his team in San Jose, are incredibly talented and enjoyable to work with. The only unfortunate part of this partnership is explaining to those who have lost someone that their loved one has been transported out of the county for an autopsy. The medical examiner’s office in San Jose is located at the San Jose Regional Medical Center. It is a secure facility and they do not allow visitation or viewing.
Often we can only provide an estimate of when an autopsy can take place. It all depends on the workload of the pathologist at that time. Normally, autopsies are performed within a few days. Toxicological results take months to return. This can delay the final determination of cause and mode of death in some cases.
An autopsy is performed when there is no medical explanation for the death. These situations arise in cases of accidents, homicides, suicides, overdoses and when someone dies unexpectedly without medical explanation. It is sometimes difficult for members of our community to understand. One scenario would be that of a loved one in the late 1980s with high blood pressure and diabetes. If that person died while sleeping, a family can request an autopsy to get an answer as to Why their beloved has passed away. In these cases, we contact the doctor who had this dependent. The doctor will often say that death may not have been expected at the time, but it can be medically explained by age and illness. You would expect to see the determination of death from myocardial infarction (cardiac arrest) due to age, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If that person was not treated by a doctor, they would be sent for an external autopsy during which the pathologist would perform an external examination of the body for trauma and read all available medical records to determine the circumstances and the condition. cause of death. The end result is usually the equivalent of a “medical statement”.
The era of COVID-19 has created a whole new set of challenges for the coroner and public health officials. In the normal course of our duties, when people die for medical reasons, the coroner has no jurisdiction. The medical death is taken care of by the attending physician and the family takes care of it. However, in the event of a pandemic, the coroner is notified of any death linked to the said pandemic. In the case of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), the Public Health Service is monitoring the statistics of people who have died. The public health department and public health officials track all deaths and may perform post-mortem tests to see if a deceased person had COVID-19 at the time of death. These determinations and statistics are held by public health, not by the coroner. We are working hand in hand to keep track of the statistics of the pandemic, but it is beyond the competence of the coroner.
Being a Deputy Sheriff is a great job and a calling, but by no means easy. This job can be very traumatic for our staff. In public safety, we often see death and trauma. Some in our community go their whole lives without being exposed to death. Sometimes deputy sheriffs deal with it on a daily or weekly basis. Our staff are the ones who are responsible for recovering the remains of those who have lost their lives. Regardless of the condition of the remains; they have to pick up all the leftovers. We do this out of respect and dignity for the deceased and their loved ones. It’s a very difficult part of the job, but it’s also one of the most important things we do. We are with you in the worst times of your life, and even in death. Some of the most incredible letters and calls of heartfelt thanks for our service relate directly to the way we have treated members of our community during death cases.
We are human. We get emotional when you get emotional. We fight when the children die. We are sad to see your pain. But we do our best to always conduct ourselves in a professional manner. Sometimes it can seem “cold” or “indifferent”. We never intend to be like this. There are certain rules that we must follow and we always do our best for the deceased. But know that we cry with you. We go back to the office and talk about it. We find it hard to process the things we see. We are affected by every loss of life. Sometimes that’s why we show frustration with drunk drivers, speeding tickets, careless parents and other dangerous things. It is we who are called to these preventable “accidents”. And we are not alone. Our allies of the police, the fire brigade and the AMR are also confronted with it. Our hospital medical staff and dispatchers are often overlooked.
It is a humbling experience to be at home and by your side during these touching times. I promise we will always strive to be empathetic, calm and sensitive. If you have any questions regarding end of life issues, please do not hesitate to call our office for advice. Hospice is an amazing resource with some of the most dedicated and caring people I have ever interacted with. You are not supposed to know what to do in the event of tragedy or end-of-life situations with a loved one. There really are no bad questions. We will do our utmost to guide you, be there for you, and treat your loved ones with the dignity they deserve.