Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
In the belly of the University of New Mexico’s scientific laboratories building, past key-card locked doors, cleaning stations, locker rooms, and extra scrubs and booties, sits the cavernous lab room used by the Office of the Medical Investigator. A long row of tables spans the length of the room, each one set up with instruments of dissection and high-powered spotlights, in preparation for autopsies.
And in a smaller room off to one side lives the office’s computed tomography (CT) scanner – a high-powered device used to X-ray roughly 3,000 bodies each year for blunt force injuries, bullet wounds, and other deadly factors. It is used frequently in cases where families object to autopsies – which involve cutting a person open – for cultural or religious reasons.
After eight years of service, the “most used CT scanner in North America,” is barely limping along.
So this year, in the 2019 legislative session, the Health Sciences Center will ask for $1.4 million in capital funding to replace it.
Dr. Kurt Nolte, the chief medical investigator, said recently the device has broken down every couple of weeks, causing delays in examining and releasing bodies.
He said Philips, the company that makes the scanner, told him OMI’s device has been used more than any other scanner they make.
“It’s one of the things that keeps me awake at three in the morning, whether we can keep this scanner going in time to get funding to get it replaced,” Nolte said in a recent interview. “It’s so important for what we do.”
Nolte said the scanner, purchased in 2010, has transformed the way investigators examine bodies for clues on cause of death. OMI investigates all homicides, suicides, drug overdoses, traffic fatalities, unexpected and unattended deaths, children’s deaths and more for all of New Mexico.
Investigators use the scanner to X-ray bodies at very high resolution – much higher than in living patients where there is a fear of radiation poisoning – and at very close intervals, about half a millimeter apart.
The images help investigators look for internal injuries and any anomalies that may be missed with a traditional autopsy. In some cases, the scanner can be used instead of an autopsy, but it is also used in addition to an autopsy to glean more exact images.
Nolte said avoiding an autopsy is especially important in Native American communities, and since the office got the scanner it has doubled the number of bodies investigators examine externally rather than through an autopsy.
He said at a recent meeting of the OMI Governing Board, the cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, talked about how important CT scans are for the Native American community. The department declined to comment to the Journal.
“We can now more frequently honor family members’ requests that we not perform an autopsy in a certain case, for religious, cultural or other personal reasons,” Nolte said. “We can more easily accommodate these requests because we can get the information through the CT scan.”
In addition to being used to determine cause of death, Nolte said, the scanner can also be used to aid criminal investigations.
Investigators can 3D print a model of a decedent’s mouth and teeth and compare the mold with dental records in order to identify the person. They can also create models of how a gunshot pierced a body to show jurors the nature of an injury without all the blood and guts.
“When I say it’s transformed our practice it really has transformed our practice,” Nolte said. “Which is why it’s so critical to get this scanner replaced and to get it replaced in this legislative session. This is one of my highest priorities right now.”