CLEVELAND — The Medical Examiner’s Office. Though associated with death, it often informs us about life.
“I think a good medical examiner's office should be engaged in the problems of its community, studying them. And you know, I was trained as a physician - so preventing them," says Dr. Thomas Gilson, Medical Examiner of Cuyahoga County.
That mission guides Dr. Gilson, only the fourth coroner in Cuyahoga County’s history.
“You know, this is a quote from one of my teachers, you know, he said. You can learn a lot about how a society lives by studying how people die. I think there’s a lot of truth in that because how people die really informs how your going to take care of people going forward," Dr. Gilson reflects.
His office solves crimes and medical mysteries -- and is harbinger of deadly trends in the opioid crisis.
“Everyone was like it’s the kids, kids. It was people my age," Dr. Gilson says. "And you know, white suburban men who got addicted to painkillers. and where did they get addicted painkillers. Well, they were in the building trades. So if I want to intervene upstream on that, I can do messaging through labor unions."
Television shows mispresent the work as glamorous – and infallible.
That’s one reason we chose Gilson’s office to launch a 3News segment called “Viewfinder, which aims to offer a better view of the people and places behind doors typically closed to the public.
Gilson oversees 105 employees, including seven forensic pathologists, who perform autopsies on the top floor of a its non-descript building at University Circle.
With surprisingly basic instruments.
"This is really the tools I would use mostly as the pathologist. So, a scalpel blades, the handle scissors, forceps or pickups of ruler, probe open a large knife. Um, I think people often are surprised that, you know, that's pretty much all the tools they really need to do an autopsy. Uh, and these tools probably haven't changed in the last hundred years," says Dr. Gilson.
Gilson and his staff examined 1,800 bodies last year, which represents about 10 percent of all deaths in the county.
171 ruled homicides.
The office tests more than tissue samples. It scrutinized 3,400 shell casings and fired more than 6000 rounds on its own gun range to try to match weapons to crime scenes.
In a giant basement warehouse, in a nearby parking garage, a library of life’s tragedies. Decades of files, evidence and DNA samples.
And, in case of a mass disaster, 5,000 body bags.
Also, a training center. Rooms with staged with a crime scenes to teach investigators how to see and listen to the deceased.
“If we don't bring high quality death investigation to, you know, crime, criminal activity, innocent men go to jail, guilty men go free, that's a big problem. if we don't bring high quality death investigation to our public health mission, then we've missed opportunities to make this a better place to live," says Dr. Gilson.
Gilson says he’s trying to live up to high standards of the county’s first medical examiner, Sam Gerber, at the helm for 50 years. "Gerber in terms of doing high quality investigations and not just, you know, ramshackled dopey things. Thank you Dr. Gerber. Every elected coroner in the state of Ohio has to be a physician. Thank you Dr. Gerber"
Gilson gave us a view of his office to show it's still a public health sentinel.
“There's good science going on here and you know, we're kind of trying to look beyond, like you said, just a lot of death happens here. That's true. But what I really want to translate that information into is ways to make this a healthier community."