IF D.C. CHIEF MEDICAL EXAMINER Jonathan L. Arden thinks he's had the last word on the incident involving Deborah Wilson and the morgue, he's sadly mistaken. To hear Dr. Arden tell it, the story about Ms. Wilson's being alive when she was placed in a refrigerator at the morgue is all a mistake. That may be the case. But because of contradictory statements about the incident and the lack of public access to either morgue staff directly involved in the incident or paramedic reports, it will require more than a dismissive statement from the medical examiner to settle the matter.
This newspaper reported on Thursday that Ms. Wilson had been found the previous Friday in her Northwest Washington apartment and judged by responding paramedics to be dead. They reportedly placed her in a body bag and sent her to the morgue, where she was put in a refrigerator. But according to a report written and signed by physician's assistant Mary Beth Petrasek, she and Constance DiAngelo, a physician, both thought they detected a pulse, removed Ms. Wilson from the refrigerator and instructed a morgue employee to call 911. Paramedics arrived and placed Ms. Wilson on a cardiac monitor, but she showed no heart activity and was pronounced dead.
Not so, said Dr. Arden at a news conference on Thursday and in an interview with this page yesterday. He said his two medically trained staff members -- a physician and a physician's assistant -- "made an honest mistake." Dr. Arden said Dr. DiAngelo and Ms. Petrasek now agree with his conclusion, but he refused to allow them to be interviewed. He also reportedly criticized his staff in a closed-door meeting for leaking information about the incident. But should the query end with the chief medical examiner's declaration? Obviously it looks better for the medical examiner's office if Ms. Wilson was dead on arrival. But there is an official report on the record suggesting the possibility that she wasn't. Moreover, an additional report by paramedics who arrived at Ms. Wilson's apartment is being withheld from the public by the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services on grounds that it is a private document.
We have no wish to prolong what must be a very difficult time for Ms. Wilson's family. But it is important to know whether the trained and experienced physician and physician's assistant at the morgue were correct in their judgment. While the chief medical examiner contends his staff was in error when it said Ms. Wilson had a pulse, Cyril Wecht, past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and current coroner in Allegheny County, Pa., told The Post he had never heard of more than one person making the same pulse-taking mistake. "It's a rarity times a rarity," he said.
Little wonder, therefore, that the incident remains in dispute. Public confidence in both the D.C. medical examiner's office and the Fire and Emergency Medical Services could be strengthened by an independent review of Ms. Wilson's death, including interviews with responding paramedics and attending morgue staff and an inspection of all relevant fire department and morgue documents. It is an assignment tailor-made for the D.C. inspector general.