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Cook County Morgue is at capacity

Monday, October 08, 2007
Chicago Defender
by Associated Press

Cook County's chief medical examiner, Nancy Jones, acknowledges that the tale of the missing body doesn't cast her office in the best light.
The remains of 64-year-old Rosalie Schultz went missing inside the county morgue for more than a day this spring. As her horrified family waited, morgue staff scrambled to locate Schultz's body, eventually finding it behind a larger body in a cooler that had reached capacity.
The morgue held at least 250 bodies, 75 percent of them unclaimed, even before the beginning of summer, its busiest season.
Since the macabre mishap, the situation hasn't improved; as of late September, the cooler held 258 bodies _ including 13 that have been there since 2006, according to morgue officials.
Jones blames a slow economy, but said there still was room for more bodies.
'Funerals are expensive,' she said. 'Families do not have the money to bury their loved ones, so the county is going to have to take care of more bodies than they have in the past.'
But former Chief Medical Examiner Edmund Donoghue and former assistant administrator Michael Boehmer say the incident hints at bigger troubles: a morgue that has become worse-equipped to handle an emergency.
Schultz's disappearance might not have gained much notice elsewhere. But here, her death _ one of the first attributed to heat this year _ and the overcrowding it exposed were a reminder of the chaotic summer of 1995, when a heat wave killed more than 700 people in less than a week.
That emergency taught Chicago a valuable, if deadly, lesson, and temperatures above 90 degrees now trigger an emergency plan that includes city workers calling and visiting the frail and elderly.
Although the morgue could hold an influx of bodies by bringing in refrigerated trucks, as it did in 1995, it has 20 fewer employees than it did 12 years ago, down to 100 this year. And the county has cut the office budget, $73,000 in the last year alone.
Donoghue and Boehmer say budget cuts and short-staffing are hurting operations and workers across the board, from the receiving desk to investigations to autopsies. And Boehmer said the number of stored bodies places a strain on the morgue.
When he retired in March, Boehmer said, some staff were working seven days a week to cover the receiving desk, which has just eight people to cover 24 hours, 365 days a year. The morgue receives about 18-25 bodies each day and performs about 3,500 autopsies a year, officials said.
'I kept telling them that we were severely short-staffed, and that if we had an emergency we wouldn't be able to handle it _ and yet they continued to cut,' said Donoghue, who retired as chief medical examiner last year. He is now regional medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Jones, however, said her office is 'a well-oiled machine' that is dealing with the shortstaffing with 'a lot of overtime' and optimism that the budget crunch will eventually subside, enabling the office to hire more help.
'It's not all doom and gloom,' she said. 'It's not the story that people think it is.'
Morgue officials say most of the unclaimed bodies will be buried in a county grave in Homewood during the next mass burial, while others are being held as pathologists work to determine the person's identity or cause of death.
When a body at the morgue goes unclaimed for at least 30 days, staff must contact the state and the Veteran's Administration before the person can be buried in the county grave. The state decides if a person is eligible for a welfare burial, and the VA determines whether the person was a vet and gets a proper military burial.
Boehmer said the process used to take no more than two months but has been increasing over time, up to at least three months by the time he left. Jones said it isn't unusual for the morgue to hold bodies for more than three months as state and federal officials compile the necessary information.
The VA said the morgue had been slow to produce lists of people whose bodies are being held.
Some of the nation's other big cities haven't experienced cooler capacity issues similar to Chicago's.
Each of New York's boroughs has its own morgue capable of holding up to 200 bodies, said Ellen Borakove, spokesman for New York City's Medical Examiner's office. And in Las Vegas, the morgue doesn't handle long-term storage and holds bodies for only up to 30 hours, instead of the 30 days typical at other morgues, said coroner Mike Murphy.
Jones, who has been at the Cook County medical examiner's office for 21 years, said she doesn't believe one misplaced body tarnished the public perception of her office.
'The people in the office, we're all dedicated to the people we serve,' she said.

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