Travis County transitions into state-of-the-art medical examiner’s office

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The public got a rare look inside the Travis County Medical Examiner Office’s new home before investigators move from their current downtown location to the 52,000-square-foot building later this year.

Officials from Travis and surrounding counties celebrated during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday at the state-of-the-art, two-story building. The new office is located at 7723 Springdale Rd. in east Travis County, about 7 miles away from the current facility, and features the latest advancements in the industry.

“Technology in this building represents the most modern technology one could ever use,” said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. J. Keith Pinckard.

Dr. Sam Andrews, deputy medical examiner, said Travis County is now one of only five to 10 medical examiners offices in all of North America who have a computed tomography (CT) scanner utilizing the advanced imaging modality.

And, while their office isn’t currently experiencing a shortage of pathologists to conduct autopsies, the machine will help them maintain their caseload as they work to determine the cause and manner of all sudden, unexpected, violent, suspicious or unnatural deaths in the county.

Andrews said they expect to send every body they receive through the CT scanner. For some, the scanner will be vital in supplementing an autopsy, and in others it will replace the autopsy altogether.

“That’s where it’s going to be more helpful in terms of shortage of pathologists and workload,” Andrews said. “A lot of motor vehicle deaths, we can diagnose the severe injuries and the lethal injuries on a CT scan and then not have to do the autopsy and that can save quite a bit of time because autopsies [have] a lot of detail involved, documenting a lot of injuries, and they can be time-consuming.”

Although they’re still at their downtown location, Andrews expects they’ll make the move to the new building by the end of the year. The move will expand their capacity from 42 bodies to freezer space for 100 bodies.

The new building also has four observation decks above autopsy rooms where Austin police detectives can get real-time information on cases they’re working.

On the old space: ‘If the doctor is working on doing an autopsy, I can’t be working on and examine the skeleton.’

“That’s enormous to law enforcement. It’s very important that we’re able to communicate with them about what we’re finding in real time,” Pinckard said. “We may identify things at autopsy that give them investigative leads so it’s very important that they’re here and that they are partnering with us as we do these exams.”

The new building also includes a decomposition room that allows them to work with law enforcement to determine the cause of death of individuals and whether or not certain trauma occurred while they were living or after they died.

“We’re able to help try and identify people that come into us,” said Jennifer Giesecke, an investigator at the ME’s office. “One of the first things that I often ask is is this person even a human being. The way we make that determination is really just by the shape of the bones. Most mammals, in particular, have roughly the same bones as a human being, but the shape is going to be different.”

Giesecke said the decomposition room is an upgrade from the old building since investigators will no longer have to share space with those conducting autopsies. Ultimately, she said, it’ll allow them to be more effective in their work.

“I’m so excited about the space. Right now, in the current building, I’m sharing one room, which is the same room where a doctor does an autopsy,” Giesecke said. “So if the doctor is working on doing an autopsy, I can’t be working on and examine the skeleton. So I have to pack up the skeletal remains, allow the doctor to go in there and do their examination… Sharing a space, you can’t do it all at once.”

There are only a few hundred forensic pathologists working in the U.S., according to Pinckard. TCMEO will work with the University of Texas Medical Branch Office of Graduate Medical Education in the new space and offer a training program in forensic pathology in July 2018.

“We’re excited about forming some partnerships with them,” Pinckard said.

The Travis County Commissioners Court approved $23.3 million in funding for the new office in March 2015. The project came in $4 million under budget.

The old office in downtown Austin is currently being turned into a sobriety center.

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