The D.C. Medical Examiner's office, beset by staff shortages and resignations, accidentally discarded a body and misplaced another in the past eight months, according to city officials.
The first mixup occurred last February, when the body of a prematurely born infant was thrown out with the trash and never recovered, according to Charles M. Seigel, public information director for the D.C. Department of Human Services.
The second incident occurred last month, when the medical examiner's office released the wrong body to a funeral home. Before the mistake was discovered, the body had been cremated and funeral services had been held, Seigel said.
After the first error came to light, Dr. Rak Woon Kim, acting chief medical examiner, tightened procedures for marking bodies.
Kim has been acting chief since Dr. Douglas S. Dixon resigned as acting chief last March. Dixon, as his predecessor as chief, Dr. James L. Luke, did, cited staff shortages, budget cutbacks, interference by city officials and a requirement that medical examiners live in the District as his reason for resigning his post. He eventually left to become a medical examiner in Massachusetts.
In an interview just before he left as a medical examiner, Dixon cited what he said were three instances where "pressure" had been applied by city officials to alter medical examiners' determinations. "Why do five forensic pathologists leave a place in a year and a half if there is not something fundamentally really wrong here?" Dixon said.
City officials said they only asked Dixon to review his decisions in light of new information presented by family members or friends.
Seigel said yesterday that the continuing problems could be seen as having contributed to the recent mixups, but he said such errors are bound to occur occasionally in any busy office. More than 4,000 cases and 1,000 autopsies are handled by the office each year.
Kim's secretary said yesterday that any comment would have to be made by Dr. Andrew D. McBride, D.C. public health commissioner, who said that he has asked respected pathologists to study the problems of the office and help recruit a new chief.
We set a high priority on getting a chief to reestablish the office's position in the field of forensix pathology," said McBride, who became commissioner in July. He added that the mixups represent "human error" not related to the other problems in the office.
Seigel said the baby thrown out with the trash was born prematurely last Feb. 4 at Providence Hospital. An ambulance carrying the baby in an incubator the next day became involved in an auto accient, and the baby fell out of the ambulance and died four hours later.
After an autopsy was performed, the body was wrapped in plastic and placed in a storage bin in the medical examiner's office. On Feb. 13, the Henry S. Washington & Sons Funeral Home attempted to pick up the body for a funeral. The body could not be found, according the Seigel.
"They did an investigation and discovered that one technician remembered on the night of Feb. 10 cleaning the area and seeing a plastic bag with a name tag. He believes he threw it out, not realizing there was a body in it," Seigel said. "The trash had been picked up early on the 11th and hauled to four different places. We believe it was thrown out."
The second incident occurred Sept. 18, when the medical examiner's office received an unidentified body, which was tagged "John Doe." Later the same day, the body was identified as that of Jose C. Corea, 33, of Southeast Washington.
"One of our technicians began to change the log book and the storage box sheets which had identified him as Doe. He was distracted by phone calls and forgot to change the toe tag on his body to Corea," Seigel said.
On Sept. 20, the Robert G. Mason Funeral Home arrived to remove another unidentified body. A technician gave the funeral home Corea's body, still identified as Doe, Seigel said.
"That evening, a third technician noticed that the body of the person who was supposed to have been taken to the funeral home was still there," Seigel said. "He left a note for the morning crew. On the 21st they discovered the wrong body had been sent to the funeral home."
The medical examiner's office called the funeral home and was told the body had already been cremated, and the funeral had been held. The office also notified Corea's widow, who was "understanding," according to Seigel.
He said the medical examiner's office then returned Corea's ashes to his widow, and they were sent to El Salvadore, where he was born. The office cremated the initially unidentified body and gave them to the other man's family.
"It was one of those things. It was just an accident," Seigel said.