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Advocate for the dead transitions her position

Sue Dzubay recently resigned from her job as Pierce County's medical examiner and will be succeeded by John Worsing. <i>Debbie Griffin photo</i>

Pierce County Medical Examiner Sue Dzubay shared insights about her work as she prepares to resign from the job she's held for 16 years and shift into being a deputy medical examiner under her successor, John Worsing.

"From the moment I introduce myself," she said about doing death notifications, "everything changes for that person."

The Ellsworth native works as a nursing supervisor and emergency-management coordinator at River Falls Area Hospital. She was finding it increasingly difficult to juggle those responsibilities, along with medical examiner, home and family.

"I just decided it was a good time to transition out," she said.

Dzubay looks forward to not being on call and having more spontaneity and flexibility. She'll be able to take vacations or attend events without imposing on a deputy ME to cover for her.

She attests that death comes at any hour on any day. She has trudged out on every major holiday except Halloween, recalling a Mother's Day and Christmas death that devastated the respective families.

She's had to abandon a full cart of groceries and leave on a call immediately after blowing out the candles on her birthday cake.

She enjoys the job and its challenges, seeing it as an essential role demanding a balanced mix of compassion, human connection and emotion, science and education.

"It's very rewarding," said Dzubay.

Deciphering death

Dzubay said the main functions of medical examiner are serving as an advocate for the dead and determining cause and manner of death. That includes signing that crucial, legal piece of paper - the death certificate.

She said, "We're also the people who come - without a gun, without a uniform - to tell them."

She said human emotion is unpredictable. She's had people shut down, run away, slam the door and reach out for a hug.

Dzubay said she and a sheriff's deputy normally do notifications together. Sometimes a clergyperson comes, too.

Often after notification, she waits with the family for a mortician to arrive. Dzubay calls it a privilege to share such an intimate time connecting with people.

Sometime she comforts, explains or just listens. She said those grieving often tell stories about the loved one, starting with their most recent memory of them, maybe running out the door that morning and shouting, "Love you!"

She says it's obvious people don't think or talk much about death while they're alive, but it would help if they did - even something as basic as burial versus cremation.

Medical examiners also figure out how a person died. Dzubay likens the task to looking in a kaleidoscope then assembling the puzzle pieces.

"It's really all about life and what's happening with life," said Dzubay of solving each mystery...observing, listening, looking in the medicine cabinet.

Coroners and medical examiners classify a death in one of six ways: Natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, undetermined and pending (test results).

Typically, a physician or forensic pathologist fills the role, but other qualified professionals can also do the job.

Dzubay laughs about how dramatic TV shows give people unrealistic ideas of how deaths and death investigations are handled. Professionals call it the "CSI effect."

"They're not all solved in 45 minutes without commercials," Dzubay said.

For examples, no medical examiners' offices would have the immense space, super-advanced technology or large teams of people found in the fictional labs. And, with privacy and confidentiality of the utmost importance, none of them are encased in shiny all-glass walls, either.

Some death scenes are harder than others, she said. Dzubay remembers working a train-versus-pedestrian scene in which evidence was scattered for a half mile. Another involved a grisly wood-chipper accident.

She said the puzzle presents a much greater challenge when the person has been dead "a while."

People die at home, in church, in barns or fields and on deer stands or the toilet. Some appear to have been peaceful and timely, an end to struggle and pain. Others, for example suicides or children, weigh heavily on a coroner's heart.

"Some deaths are not that awful," states Dzubay.

She remembers one family gathering around the body of a woman who'd been a piano teacher, and singing all her favorite songs.

Learning-doing, past-future

Dzubay said, "One thing I'm passionate about in my role is educating the public."

The medical examiner said the majority of deaths she investigates are preventable. People die from not wearing belts, helmets, life jackets and other safety devices. Many drink and drive or text while driving.

Dzubay speaks to many different groups - middle school girls; college biology, physiology and anatomy students; young people in driver's-education classes; and others. She's helped coordinate mock-car crashes, too, but says students plan the event for their peers, deciding what will make the most compelling scene.

Dzubay also determines if an autopsy is needed and said Pierce County's ME office might order eight of them per year.

Medical examiners and their deputies also stay on the lookout for public-health issues, plus work closely with people from hospice, funeral and nursing homes, law enforcement, and families.

The U.S. Justice Department puts forth standards to be followed for "every scene every time,"

Dzubay explained, "The goal is to train everyone for consistency and continuity in completing the death certificate and death investigation."

Anyone doing death investigations must attend training and become certified. Dzubay trained in Florida's Miami-Dade County, where the morgue security is ultra-tight. People smuggle drugs inside their bodies and routinely die during transport, but the drugs' owners tend to want their goods back.

"We were bused there with an armed guard," she said about the experience. "That was really an eye opener for me, being from Wisconsin."

During her tenure, Dzubay championed change and advocated improvements for the ME's office and its services.

She pushed to change from an elected coroner to an appointed medical examiner, eliminating the need for the person to campaign and placing the focus more on a person's qualifications.

She urged Pierce County to establish a budget for the office, as well as set fees for its different services.

Asked how she maintains her own well-being, Dzubay said she keeps in mind that she's providing people with an essential service. While always composed on the job, sometimes she cries after leaving a scene.

As a nurse, she became interested in coroner duties after reading a book by crime writer Patricia Cromwell. Dr. E.R. Jonas was the county's coroner at the time, so she asked if she could shadow him.

After he mentored her for several years and prepared to retire, he suggested she run for the office.

Dzubay said she realized recently that she leaves office on the same day she was appointed to it years ago, Dec. 29.