Backlog in the Oklahoma ME's office leaves more than one thousand families waiting for closure
8:30 PM, Nov 8, 2013
9:55 AM, Nov 11, 2013
TULSA - One year ago the Osborn family was still whole.
"He had just started Kindergarten and loved going to school and loved life," said Steven Osborn about his son Noah.
Mom Jenny Osborn remembers, "He always loved hugs and he always told us that he loved us."
The Osborns came from Oregon, to Tulsa, last fall to celebrate Thanksgiving with family.
We spoke to Noah's parents about what happened November 29, 2012.
"When we woke up the next morning he just wasn't there. He had passed away sometime during the night," said Steven.
Noah's body went to the state medical examiner's office to determine why the healthy five-year-old died.
Steven says, "Since then we've participated in a couple of different grief share groups here in Oregon and talked to other parents and they're like, yeah, we had to wait a long time, too, it was like six weeks."
Nearly a year later Noah's report is not complete.
Amy Elliott, the Medical Examiner's Chief Administrative Officer says, "Every case that we have is a priority but we feel for Noah's family for the time that they've waited."
And the Osborns aren't the only ones waiting.
Elliott says there are stacks and stacks of files comprising the current backlog of cases for more than 1,000 people - with the cause of death all undetermined right now. Their death certificates have yet to be issued. Their families waiting for closure.
Nearly 100 of those cases, including Noah's, go back to 2012.
2NEWS compared Oklahoma's caseload to some other ME's offices in the nation.
In most states there are county, and in some cases city, ME offices all doing the same work the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's office does.
On average the Oklahoma ME's office handles 23,000 suspicious deaths a year. New Mexico's office handles 5,400 cases each year.
Even a city as large as Denver only handles about 1,100 cases a year.
Elliott says the massive case load contributes to the backlog. "The doctors I have on staff will divide the cases and start working on them. It's our goal to get the decedents back to their loved ones within 24 hours. All the while, the day's before cases and the week's before and the month's before sit and wait," said Elliott.
Elliott says she doesn't have enough forensic pathologists to keep up, much less catch up. "And I actually need 17 of them."
She has 10 now, and while she does have the funding to hire pathologists, "If I hired a doctor right now I couldn't put him or her in the building to work."
There is no room in the cramped offices for any more pathologists.
Beyond being out of space the building itself is in disrepair; rusty equipment, leaks and holes in the roof.
And under that roof the knowledge each of these files represents a hold on a family's life.
Steven says, "And we still don't have, really, any answers."
In Noah's case several levels of testing have been done with no cause of death found. The ME's office says there's just one more test to run to see if a genetic problem with Noah's heart killed him.
The results are not expected until the fall of next year.
So Steven and Jenny tuck their youngest into bed each night still not knowing why his big brother passed away in his sleep.
The difficult wait continues for the Osborns and other families.
For years funding has not be available to expand Oklahoma's facilities.
"Oklahoma deserves better than this for their lost loved ones," Elliott said.
Then, just last month, the way was cleared and money approved to build new offices double the current size.
The ME's office says there are plans to break ground next year and build a brand new medical examiner's office however it won't be complete until 2017.