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Budgets Down, Cases Up at New Mexico’s OMI

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Life speeds by outside Dr. Ross Zumwalt’s corner office at the grand, gleaming, high-tech house of death.

Zumwalt, the state’s longtime chief medical investigator, doesn’t mind the roar of traffic from nearby I-25.

He doesn’t hear it. The $86 million New Mexico Scientific Laboratories, completed last year to house, among other agencies, the state Office of the Medical Investigator, is hermetically sealed and soundproofed from the outside world.

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But that billboard.

“Some months are worse than others,” he said, scowling at the huge sign facing his office from the interstate. These days, the billboard features the Pussycat Dolls Burlesque Review.

Zumwalt, a gentle man who has made death his life’s work, seems not the burlesque type.

The sign intrudes into what is otherwise a colorless, bare-walled office. It’s as if Zumwalt has yet to move in to — or move out of — this fortress of stainless steel and sterility, though he and his staff have been here since mid-2010.

The billboard is the least of his worries, and he knows that.

In this state-of-the-art facility — the best and nicest in the country, Zumwalt is proud to say — he struggles under a shrinking budget, shrinking manpower, rising body counts and rising controversy.

He’s down to five pathologists, counting the one on extended maternity leave, when there should be nine.

Budget cuts — 13 percent since 2008 — have led to elimination of two of three grief counselors, leaving the zen-like family grief rooms unused, for the most part.

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Financial cuts have excised his tech folks, which means the snazzy computer terminals at each of 16 autopsy bays have yet to be completely hooked up.

Gone is the staff’s lone forensic anthropologist. The forensic dentist and epidemiologist positions are now part time.

Gone, too, is Dr. Richard Reichard, the only neuropathologist on staff and the man who had been poised to replace Zumwalt as chief medical investigator this year, until the Mayo Clinic came calling with a better offer.

“I am really going to miss him,” Zumwalt said with the regret of coming so close to severing himself from the tough job he has held since 1991.

Last year, the OMI performed services for 5,249 deaths, including 1,990 autopsies — an 8.3 percent increase from 2001 and the reason Zumwalt is considering extending work weeks to seven days instead of six.

That, he fears, will cause a mutiny among his already overworked staff.

“But it may be necessary,” he said. “We don’t perform autopsies on Sunday, but that makes Mondays overwhelming.”

Perhaps even more bothersome, Zumwalt said, is having to deal with what he calls harassment by lawyers and the haranguing by reporters.

In recent months, his department has been chided for charging a fee to transport bodies and for reneging on the promise to provide expert testimony in the case of a botched cesarean section.

Several of OMI’s autopsy reports have been criticized as being sloppy and misguided, most notably those involving the deaths of Albuquerque police Lt. Todd Parkins in 2008, Albuquerque animal activist Kari Winters in 2009 and Albuquerque civil rights attorney Mary Han in 2010.

In each case, the OMI classified the deaths as suicides, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

My columns criticizing OMI’s handling of the Winters and Han cases, among others, prompted my invitation from Zumwalt to tour his shiny new digs last week.

Perhaps being there, he must have speculated, would help me see the technology, training and teamwork that go into the thankless work done at OMI, where, Zumwalt said, 10 percent of all pathologists in the country are trained.

I had spent time in the old, cramped and smelly offices, but I had never been to the new facility until this private tour.

And, yes, the place is impressive, far more spacious, clean, modern and beautiful, equipped with the latest autopsy tools, a well-stocked library and the whimsy of the glitter-flecked, blood-red sinks in the employee locker rooms.

As we took a look around, Zumwalt explained the daily conferences his staff holds to discuss difficult cases and new scientific findings.

He talked about how hard his staff members work and how hard it is to find more like them. Cutting open bodies is not the most attractive career opportunity.

He explained that death is mysterious, not always easy to understand or explain or shoehorn into the categories of natural, accident, suicide, homicide or undetermined. It’s not “the” cause of death, he said, but “a” cause of death.

So, they do the best they can, he said, and even then it is not always enough. Death takes no holiday. It also leaves no written dissertation.

But it is easier to deal with the dead than with a live, grieving family or a reporter with a lot of questions. And perhaps the biggest problem facing the OMI is that it has become too isolated, too unwilling to reach out from beyond its gleaming fortress to help us understand the business of death and for us to help it understand the business of life.

As I left the OMI, Zumwalt promised to be more communicative.

That, I think, is a good start.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline Gutierrez Krueger at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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