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Autopsy turnaround times in Utah: Bad but getting better

Autopsy turnaround times in Utah: Bad but better (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) Imagine being forced to wait months, even years, for answers as to how a loved one died. That's actually a common problem here in Utah.

Lori and Savannah Clark say that February 21, 2016 was the worst day of their lives. That's the day Lori's son and Savannah's brother, Brandon Clark, died.

"I just feel like the world is not as good of a place with him not here," Lori said.

“I just really loved him and I miss him a lot," said Savanah.

Brandon's death left them with a lot of questions, burdensome questions that they hoped could be cleared up by the state medical examiner's office. But more than a year later, they couldn't get Brandon's autopsy.

Lori says her pleads to the M.E.’s office got her nowhere.

"They don't care that I'm a mother who needs some answers about my son," Lori said.

"You seriously wonder what you thought about before all of this because it's all you think about,” Savanah said.

It's a delay on which Get Gephardt has reported before. Back in 2015, a backlog in bodies was leaving grieving families without answers for an average of 150 days, with many autopsies taking significantly longer than that.

In the time since that reporting, the medical examiner's office was moved to a brand new facility and, more importantly, the legislature committed money to allow the M.E.’s office to hire two new medical examiners and other staff.

Still, the delays seem to be continuing, so Get Gephardt went to the new offices and checked in with the chief medical examiner, Dr. Erik Christensen.

He says his office is equally frustrated that autopsies are taking too long and understand how important their work is to the community.

"Every case that rolls through our door represents the worst day in somebody's life,” he said.

The silver lining, Dr. Christensen says, is that the turnaround time is improving - slowly.

“About 96 days is the average turn around which is an improvement but still a long way from where we want to be."

Utah is behind its goal, which is 60 days.

Dr. Christensen says he hopes his office's numbers will get even better in the coming months as newly hired medical examiners will be getting to work. Those positions were tough to fill specifically due to Utah’s backlog.

Dr. Christensen also fears that an improvement in turnaround time will be temporary. Utah continues to grow quickly compared to other states. More people mean more deaths, and with so many of those deaths being from drug overdoses, all of which are all required to be examined by the M.E., the office is sure to get busier.

"People don't want to come where they know they're going to get saddled with a huge workload when they could go somewhere else where the workload is less," he said.

As for Lori and Savannah, it took more than a year but they finally got Brandon’s autopsy, offering their family some long awaited closure.

"Just finding out how it happened made me realize that it couldn't have been what I thought it was and that was the biggest relief,” Savanah said.

Still, their frustration with the delay remains.

"I just felt like he didn't matter, like his death didn't matter, like it wasn't a priority," Lori said.

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