MINNESOTA: New ways to study death offer glimpse of future lifeFrom Roseau and Lake of the Woods in northwestern Minnesota to Barron in northern Wisconsin, autopsies from 19 counties are being done at the state-of-the-art Midwest Medical Examiner's Office in Ramsey, Minn., where Dr. Quinn Strobl and her staff are carrying out their work.
By: Paul Levy, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) / MCT
It is Anoka County's medical miracle, a center that has taken the art of learning about life by studying death to a new level.
From Roseau and Lake of the Woods in northwestern Minnesota to Barron in northern Wisconsin, autopsies from 19 counties are being done at the state-of-the-art Midwest Medical Examiner's Office in Ramsey, where Dr. Quinn Strobl and her staff are carrying out their work. It is the largest of a handful of regional offices in the state.
"Hopefully, these regional medical examiner's offices are the way of the future," said Dr. Lindsey Thomas, the Dakota County coroner whose Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's office handles morgue services for eight counties.
"It doesn't make sense in this day and age to have Doc Jones as your coroner, when he's not delivering babies."
No facility makes a stronger medical case for these regional offices than the two-year-old structure in Anoka County.
The only ME office in the country with a machine that can X-ray an entire body in 13 seconds, the facility is the gold standard, said an envious Thomas. The model set by recently retired Anoka County Medical Examiner Dr. Janis Amatuzio and expanded upon by Strobl, her successor, is one that coroners throughout the state are examining.
"We do autopsies while they wait," Strobl said, referring to county medical investigators who occasionally travel six hours and then wait for autopsies to be completed.
Strobl's office also does death investigations, which often deal with events surrounding the death, and provides death investigator training and consultations. That's not taken lightly in a state where many rural counties, until recently, elected funeral directors to be coroners, said Dr. Thomas Uncini, the St. Louis County medical examiner.
Minnesota has fewer than 20 medical examiners who are trained forensic pathologists, and most are in the metro area, said the Duluth-based Uncini, who is one of them. The facility in Anoka County has two, Strobl and Dr. Anne Bracey.
Those medical examiners' skills are in high demand throughout the state. Uncini's St. Louis County office also does pathology work for five other counties, and he also serves as medical examiner for Koochiching County. Dr. Mary Ann Sens, the University of North Dakota chair of Pathology who serves as the Grand Forks County coroner, also is the medical examiner for northwestern Minnesota's Mahnomen, Marshall, Kittson and Red Lake counties. The Hennepin and Ramsey County medical examiners' offices do referral work for several counties.
In Anoka County, there's a waiting list to see the doctor. Strobl, 37, named Anoka County medical examiner just 10 months ago, oversees autopsies and death investigations for eight counties and will add another, Benton County, in January.
Strobl and her staff also provide autopsy services to three Wisconsin counties and have fee-based agreements with seven other Minnesota counties and one from Wisconsin (Barron). Four other Minnesota counties are negotiating with the Midwest Medical Examiner's office, said administrator Gary Alberts. The facility was built to accommodate growth, he said.
What was that?
In a brightly lit lab area, with video screens hanging above long tables and X-ray equipment throughout, Strobl recently reacted to a phone call, waving her hands and exclaiming, "What have you got? What have you got? Oxycodone! What was it? What was it? What was it? Oh, my God. That's terrible!"
Driven and obviously enthusiastic about her work, Strobl, who is married and the mother of two young girls, is also the consummate pro who harnesses her emotions when dealing with families struck by tragedy. But she knows she views life and death from a different vantage point -- one stemming from many counties from vastly different areas.
Among her observations, Strobl has concluded that heroin-related deaths are on the rise, that 40 percent of motor-vehicle fatalities involve alcohol and that heart-related trauma and disease are still the leading killers of deaths reported to her office.
Thomas and Uncini, who also noted a rise in heroin-related fatalities, say that methamphetamine-related deaths have declined.
"All of our cases are tragedies," said Strobl, who has heard all the Dr. Quinn comments, but can do without a nickname. Her predecessor, Amatuzio, was known as the "compassionate coroner."
"The challenge of talking to families who lost loved ones is hard. Your voice can't break. You have to be helpful, maintain that level of separation. You can't cry in front of them.
"But this job is so rewarding. It's a unique field."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.