For the last year, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office has faced big problems: lost bodies, bodies stacked in crowded coolers, and employees sleeping or watching movies in the job. But Dr. Stephen Cina says changes have and are being made. Phil Rogers reports.
Cook County’s new medical examiner says his office, beset by ghoulish stories of stacked bodies and lost loved ones, was already well on the road to improvement when he took over the job.
"We definitely have turned the page, but are moving forward," Dr. Stephen Cina said Thursday. "Things are moving in the right direction."
Cina arrived this summer from Florida, finding an office which had been rocked by stories of sloppy record-keeping and leaked photos of bodies stacked high in seemingly every available space.
"Some of the crowding issues were real," Cina said in his first interview since taking over the position from Dr. Nancy Jones. "Some of the more ghoulish details, I have not been able to substantiate that they even took place."
Jones resigned in July under pressure from County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Some of the stories were irrefutable. Not only were photos widely distributed showing sloppy conditions inside the morgue, but stories abounded of families who could not find loved ones for weeks, only to learn they had been in the morgue the entire time. Cina says the lion’s share of the issues can be blamed on antiquated systems, and a drastic shortage of manpower.
"We can’t autopsy all of the cases we probably should,” he said. “It’s not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of staffing.”
“Right now we’ve got six pathologists and a doctor in training,” he said, noting that national boards consider it a violation if a pathologist performs more than 250 autopsies a year. “We have about 5,000 bodies coming through (annually). So, do the math!”
Cina said there are currently seven vacancies for assistant medical examiners and that he has four applicants for those positions. His next priority, he said, is to modernize the intake procedure, which currently still uses log books to keep track of cases.
This month, he said, he will begin the bid process for a new computerized system.
"They’re barcoded in. When they go into our rack system they’ll be barcoded in as to what slot they’re in, and what row. They’ll be barcoded as to when they enter the autopsy suite, and when they leave the autopsy suite," he explained.
"We’ll be able to run automated reports that say, 'These bodies have been here 14 days', or 'These bodies have been here 28 days,'" he said. "It’ll be very able to track the process of bodies and where they’re going."
It has been a dark chapter in an office which once had a storied reputation.
"All I can tell you is, I know what the history of this office is," Cina said. "And that’s where we’re going to be again."