OMI welcomes FBI Citizen’s Academy Alumni

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By Carol A. Clark

ALBUQUERQUE – A dozen members of the FBI Citizen’s Academy toured the Office of the Medical Investigator in the UNM Health Sciences Center Feb. 18.

OMI Deputy Medical Investigator Amy J. Wyman supervises the department’s medical investigations. She began the evening tour with a detailed PowerPoint presentation at the OMI’s central office.

“The OMI investigates any death occurring in New Mexico that is sudden, violent, untimely, unexpected, or where a person is found dead and the cause of death is unknown,” she said.

There were 14,500 deaths recorded in New Mexico in 2007, Wyman said. The OMI investigated 5,240 of those deaths and autopsied 1,886.

“Just because we go out and investigate a death doesn’t mean we’re going to do an autopsy,” she said.

The manner of deaths recorded includes:

• 58 percent natural;

• 27 percent accident, as in drug overdose and vehicle accident;

• 8 percent suicide;

• 4 percent homicide and,

• 3 percent undetermined.

“New Mexico has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country,” Wyman said. “Bernalillo County has the highest number of suicides in the state. Males 18-24 years of age commit the highest rate of suicides.”

Her investigators are finding that prescription drug abuse is surpassing illicit drug use, she said.

The state Legislature created the OMI to investigate all reportable deaths that occur in New Mexico, to determine the cause and manner of death and provide formal death certification.

Investigations uncover a collection of facts surrounding all unnatural or unexplained deaths. These facts aid the medical investigator to determine the cause and manner of the death, Wyman said. Investigations also aid in the determination of possible environmental hazards, job safety violations, consumer product dangers and public health threats.

Wyman walked through the steps of a typical investigation saying it starts at the location of the death. The police call in the specially trained medical investigators.

One of the investigators will talk to family members, witnesses and others, work with police in identifying features of the death, obtain medical histories and records and photograph the scene of the death.

The investigators then authorize the removal of the body to a location where an examination is conducted.

OMI investigators are concerned with the body and the associated evidence, she said. Law enforcement is concerned with the overall scene investigation, collection of evidence at the scene and scene management.

“Our investigators collect all the evidence in and on the body,” Wyman said. “We can store about 90 bodies and have contracts with companies that have refrigerated trucks.”

In cases where individuals remain unidentified or where identification is difficult due to the condition of the body, fingerprints, dental records and body X-rays are used along with autopsy evidence to identify a person.

In all cases, a death certificate is signed at the conclusion of the investigation. The cause and manner of death are declared on the certificate.

“We are one of the top three training facilities in the nation along with Florida and New York,” Wyman said. “OMI provides training in many aspects of medicolegal death investigation. Every county in New Mexico has specially trained and certified field deputy medical investigators who conduct investigations at the scene of death to collect information.”

Wyman has worked at the OMI for 12 years and said medical examiners typically have 16-18 years of schooling.

Her presentation included slides showing the stages of an autopsy. Wyman explained that all autopsy services are conducted at the central office and are performed by forensic pathologists with the assistance of morphology services.

The New Mexico State Laboratory provides the majority of toxicology services, she said. Some specialized tests are sent to other laboratories.

“We never close, we do autopsies everyday of the year except Christmas,” Wyman said.

All autopsy documentation is archived by the OMI and available to the public as provided by open records laws.

The Grief Services Program is an integral part of the OMI program.

“Any death can give rise to a variety of physical, emotional and social reactions,” Wyman explained. “A sudden, unexpected death can intensify these reactions. An understanding of some of the normal responses to a traumatic death of a loved one and how to cope with these reactions may be helpful to family members and friends faced with this experience.”

The program is staffed by licensed, master’s level mental health professionals with extensive experience and expertise in dealing with the effects of traumatic grief. Their services are offered to the deceased’s family at no cost.

The program also provides grief education and training throughout New Mexico for agencies such as law enforcement, emergency responders, nurses, mental health providers, teachers and other groups who request such training.

New Mexico’s OMI is a statewide medical examiner system created in 1973, replacing the coroner system, which operated under an elected official.

The Board of Medical Investigations oversees and develops policy for OMI and appoints the chief medical investigator, currently Dr. Ross Zumwalt, who is responsible for operations.

The OMI accepts four forensic pathology fellows per academic year. The program provides a year of in-depth training in forensic pathology. The interview process for fellows usually takes place in late fall and positions are filled some 18 months in advance.

For information, access http://omi.unm.edu.

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 66-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.