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New medical examiner confirmed to run troubled Cook County morgue

Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by LISA DONOVAN

Dr. Stephen Cina, a Florida forensic pathologist, was officially hired Tuesday as Cook County’s new chief medical examiner, but he admitted that some of his pals in the business asked him why he wanted to run the embattled morgue.

“My friends and colleagues have asked me why I want this position, as it is widely viewed as incredibly challenging in the medical examiner community,” he told Cook County commissioners during a Tuesday afternoon confirmation hearing.

“I love Chicago and Cook County, and I really love a challenge,” Cina told commissioners before they voted to hire the 47-year-old chief administrative officer at the University of Miami Tissue Bank, during a roughly two hour confirmation hearing.

But he added: “I can’t do it alone,” imploring the help of county commissioners and the staff he’ll manage.

And those same friends and colleagues, according to Cina, say he’s up to the challenges of running the $6.8 million operation. Those challenges range from improving technology to filling vacant positions to cutting burial costs for some of the indigent, which means looking harder at the less-expensive option of cremation.

Cina is set to start Sept. 10, nine months after the Sun-Times first reported that bodies were piling up in a body storage cooler at the West Side facility— a scene so horrendous that a medical staff employee called it “sacrilegious.” Employees said the stench was so awful — apparently from bodily fluid pooling on the floor of the cooler — that after the Sun-Times reported the complaints the state labor department launched an investigation.

The crowded cooler was the result of the slashed state funding for burials of those on public aid, but Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also blamed morgue management.

In the end, Medical Examiner Nancy Jones announced she’d step down Aug. 1 and one of her top deputies was forced to resign this month.

Confident and steady Dr. Cina fielded questions and addressed concerns from county commissioners wanting to know everything from which celebrity he most looked like to how he’d balance running the morgue — which handles everything from homicides to unattended deaths and where more than 5,000 autopsies are conducted each year — with a forensic pathology consulting business.

He vowed to follow county rules on side jobs and a top aide to Preckwinkle, whose office oversees the medical examiner’s office, will have to keep an eye on that to make sure the two jobs don’t conflict.

“At first it’s a 60-plus hour a week job,” he said, noting that in addition to doing autopsies, he’ll be meeting with law enforcement, which relies on medical examiner’s work in homicides and other investigations, as well as other work outside the office.

As for his star double?

“We could not get past who you really look like — who do you think we thought you look like?” Commissioner Deborah Sims, a South suburban Democrat, asked during a lighter moment.

Cina replied: “The wrong answer is Kenny Rogers after plastic surgery, the right answer would be Sean Connery….”

Sims admitted: “We thought you looked a lot like Burt Reynolds.”

While it’s going to take money to meet some of Cina’s goals, Commissioner Tim Schneider, northwest suburban Republican, reminded Cina that these are lean fiscal times in county government.

Cina said that when he started at the tissue bank a year ago they were dealing with a shortage of staffing but were still able to increase donations and revenues.

He said he’s well aware of the partial hiring freeze at the county and the projected $267.5 million budget deficit next year.

“I don’t believe we have a blank check for the office,” Cina said, noting that changes and improvements will be done over time.

In the end Tuesday, the county board voted 13-1 to confirm Cina, with Commissioner John Fritchey casting the sole “no” vote. Commissioner William Beavers voted “present.”

Fritchey said it’s nothing personal, but that he simply had more questions than answers about Cina and his credentials.

Cina will earn $300,000 – a 30 percent increase over his predecessor – and serve a 5-year term.




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