County coroner explains a typical day at his office

The county coroner doesn’t always go to a death scene.

Sharon Mandel is chief medical investigator for the coroner of Douglas and Shawnee counties and the private entity Frontier Forensics. She oversees a team of part-time and on-call investigators. They meet police and paramedics at the scenes of unattended deaths. They then decide if the situation warrants calling forensic pathologists Erik Mitchell or Don Pojman.

If it is an elderly person with a history of medical problems, an autopsy usually isn’t needed if the individual’s physician agrees and is willing to sign a death certificate.

“If we feel it is a natural death and we are comfortable with it, we will go ahead and release the body to the funeral home,” said Lindsay Trevino, one of the part-time investigators.

Investigators work with families and explain the process of a death investigation, she said.

“It’s a lesson in life and people,” Trevino said of her job.

In Douglas County, the role of the medical investigator is performed by trained personnel in the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical Department.

If the death appears to be a homicide, police and Fire & Medical will request the coroner.

The office of the coroner and Frontier Forensics is in a section of the Shawnee County Law Enforcement Center in downtown Topeka.

Inside the coroner’s main entrance and beyond the administration office is a small room for viewing a body. If it is necessary for a family member to make the identification, they are taken there. They view the body through a window to an adjacent room. It is not a pleasant experience, Mandel said.

“People are under stress, and you don’t know what they are going to do,” she said. “I’ve had people try to knock out the glass. I’ve caught people who fainted.”

Nearby is a locked hallway that leads to the morgue. There is a large examination room where up to five autopsies can be done at once. Outside the room is an area for cleaning stretchers and a cooler where nearly 30 bodies can be stored.

On a recent day, autopsies were to be conducted on two bodies from Wyandotte County and one each from Neosho and Shawnee counties. “That’s pretty typical,” Mandel said. “It’s a busy office.”

Mitchell and his partner, Dr. Don Pojman, are assisted with autopsies by medical technicians.

Near the back doors where bodies are unloaded is an operating room for removing organs or tissues for transplant. The transplants are handled in conjunction with Midwest Transplant Network in Westwood.

“We have a lot of people who have something sudden and nasty happen to them,” Mitchell said. “It (a transplant) is one of the few things an office like this can offer a community that is a positive rather than simply a corroboration of a negative.”