Written by Jessica Blahnik
As part of its commitment to be open, honest, and communicative about the topics Marathon County leadership and staff get comments and questions on the most, this month’s article in our “I’m Glad You Asked . . .” series features:
The Top-5 Questions People Ask Staff of the Marathon County MEDICAL EXAMINER’S OFFICE
As Marathon County’s Medical Examiner, I investigate untimely deaths in Marathon County or deaths in which a doctor wasn’t called in attendance. I’ve worked for the County in this capacity for 8 years.
The Medical Examiner’s Office was previously located in the Marathon County Courthouse. In 2018, it was relocated to 1308 West Street in Wausau.
This new location provided more space to host meetings and various community educational offerings, as well as the ability to house all records, supplies, and equipment in one location. The larger facility also provides more privacy and a quiet area to meet with families and loved ones to discretely discuss sensitive information and investigative findings.
I invite you to read on to learn the answers to 5 questions frequently asked of staff at the Marathon County Medical Examiner’s Office . . .
#1. Does every death investigation involve an AUTOPSY?
No, not every death requires an autopsy. This decision is based on the circumstances surrounding the death, known medical history, and findings during our external examination. Any death that is suspicious, criminal, or unexpected (with little to no medical history) requires an autopsy to help determine the cause and manner of death.
If we determine that an autopsy is not needed, we then rely on medical records, family interviews, and our external examination to conclude the cause of death. Sometimes, we may even speak with the decedent’s family physician to discuss the decedent’s medical history and the findings of the death investigation.
Our staff in the Medical Examiner’s Office are licensed Registered Nurses or Paramedics and have numerous years of experience working in the patient care environment. All of our staff also have extensive training in forensics, postmortem changes, injury identification, and investigative principles. We are able to rely on our training and experience to determine the cause and manner of death in the majority of cases.
#2. Marathon County is considering building a Forensic Science Center (MORGUE). How would that benefit Marathon County residents?
Having a Forensic Science Center within Marathon County would provide numerous benefits not only to our community, but also to the entire northcentral region of Wisconsin.
Currently, there are only 4 agencies that provide forensic pathology services to outside counties in Wisconsin:
- Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office
- Fond du Lac County Medical Examiner’s Office
- Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office
- University of Wisconsin (UW)–Madison’s Department of Pathology
In Marathon County, if an autopsy is ordered, the decedent will be taken to University Hospital in Madison for pathology services, which is the closest forensic pathology service provider. This delays our office in releasing a loved one to a funeral home, and it can be problematic at times to coordinate with and travel to Madison.
We currently do not have any County-owned refrigerated space to store decedents. We rely heavily on our local hospitals and funeral homes, which at times may incur additional costs to the families we serve.
In addition, by having a local Forensic Science Center, we would be able to provide enhanced customer service to the families we serve:
- We would have our own refrigerated space to keep a decedent until we can locate the next of kin or until a family decides on a funeral home.
- There would be a dedicated place for families to spend time with deceased loved ones prior to autopsy, which can be a necessity for various cultural and religious practices and allows families to meet with our staff to discuss the investigation.
- We would have the ability to release a loved one to a funeral home sooner, since there would be minimal delays in scheduling an autopsy and we could have it conducted locally.
- There would be additional opportunities for a decedent to become a tissue donor by eliminating some of the current obstacles that automatically rule that option out.
What’s more, having a local Forensic Pathologist would enhance the quality of our death investigations. He or she would have the opportunity to respond to suspicious death scenes and to work closely with our community partners. The Forensic Pathologist would be able to provide local expert forensic testimony, offer enhanced prevention measures, meet with local law enforcement agencies and the District Attorney’s Office to discuss cases in person, and provide consultations for complex cases in which the individual is still alive, such as cases of child abuse, domestic violence, or assault/violence.
#3. Why is a $250 CREMATION RELEASE required?
A Cremation Release is a permit provided by either a Coroner’s or Medical Examiner’s office giving a funeral home permission to cremate a body. Per Wisconsin State Statute, every decedent in Wisconsin must have a completed Cremation Release in order to be cremated. In addition, there is a 48-hour waiting period before a body can be cremated. This ensures that no further details of the death come forward that would warrant the Medical Examiner or Coroner to conduct a death investigation.
In Marathon County, prior to issuing the authorization, we conduct an external body examination on the decedent and take photographs. We also look into the cause and manner of death to ensure there are no injuries or any concerning circumstances surrounding the death. Once a body is cremated, all of our evidence is gone and we are unable to order an autopsy, secure toxicology specimens, conduct an external body examination, or even run a simple DNA test. Therefore, it is imperative that everything we need for a thorough death investigation be completed before a body is cremated.
#4. How has the opioid epidemic and illicit drug use impacted Marathon County? What steps has the Medical Examiner’s Office taken to reduce OVERDOSE DEATHS?
The opioid epidemic has greatly impacted our community. We first had an increase in our overdose deaths in 2016, when we went from 7 overdoses in 2015 to 15 in 2016. We remained at 15 overdose deaths in 2017. In 2018, our numbers dropped to 7 overdoses; however, the number of overdose resuscitations with Narcan, an opioid reversal drug, had increased within the community. As of May 2019, we have had 5 confirmed overdoses and 2 additional suspected overdoses. If this rate continues, we will be on track for a record year — which is nothing anybody wants.
This year, our office has seen a trend of individuals overdosing on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50–100 times more potent than heroin or morphine. The majority of these individuals believed they were using heroin and were unaware they were using fentanyl, often resulting in an accidental overdose.
In 2018, Marathon County was awarded a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Justice to create an Overdose Fatality Review Team, with facilitation support from the Medical College of Wisconsin. We were the 5th county in Wisconsin to develop a team. The Marathon County Medical Examiner’s Office and Health Department facilitate the team, which consists of representatives from our health care organizations, law enforcement, fire departments, Department of Corrections, District Attorney’s Office, Corporation Counsel, and numerous other County organizations. As a team, we have reviewed 8 overdoses and have developed over 20 recommendations to implement within our community.
We plan to share some of our recommendations and the behind-the-scenes work that resulted from the review team at a meeting (open to the public) taking place on Thursday, August 15, 2019, from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. The meeting location is yet to be determined. If interested in attending, feel free to send an email to Jessica.Blahnik@co.marathon.wi.us and I will follow up with location details in the coming weeks.
We are extremely fortunate to have great community support, determination, and dedication — allowing individuals to come together to start looking into ways we can reduce these premature deaths.
#5. Are there any CONCERNING TRENDS (outside of the opioid epidemic) that you notice in Marathon County?
One of the trends we have consistently observed in regard to deaths in Marathon County is the rising rate of suicides. Our suicide rate for the past 5 years has been:
- 15 in 2015
- 18 in 2016
- 20 in 2017
- 25 in 2018
- 12 in 2019, year to date
As an office, we are extremely concerned that Marathon County’s suicide rate has continually increased over the past few years, with 2018 being a record year. Suicides are preventable and devastate not only loved ones, but also so many others in the community.
In response to the increased suicide rate, we are now tracking additional information on all of our suicides to better understand the trends and to help us identify prevention measures. We are also committed to assisting North Central Health Care in their Zero Suicide initiative, as well as assisting the Prevent Suicide Marathon County coalition.
In addition, we hope to create a Suicide Review Team this year to review the circumstances surrounding each suicide that occurs in Marathon County to help us prevent future deaths.
Medical Examiner | Marathon County Medical Examiner’s Office
Jessica Blahnik is the Marathon County Medical Examiner. She started in the Medical Examiner’s Office as the Chief Deputy in 2011 and was promoted to Medical Examiner in 2014. She has a master’s degree in Forensic Nursing with an emphasis in death investigation. In her free time, Jessica enjoys spending time with her friends and family, traveling, boating, and doing anything outdoors. Email Jessica Blahnik.
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- Marathon County Board Supervisor Romey Wagner Shares His Entrepreneurial Insights & Passion for Community Service Both Here & Abroad
- Guiding Our Economic Future by Enhancing High-Speed, Broadband Internet Access in Rural Marathon County
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