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The man fixing the morgue: Stephen Cina and his big project

Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cinis interviewed his office Thursday October 25 2012 Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina is interviewed in his office on Thursday, October 25, 2012 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:30AM

Forget the high-tech world of TV pathologists. “Chicago CSI” this is not.

“We don’t solve all our cases in 24 hours,” said Dr. Stephen Cina, the new Cook County medical examiner. “We don’t work exclusively with supermodels. I don’t have a helicopter. We can’t look at a body and say this body has been dead three days and six hours. If a pathologist ever does that, you need to arrest him, because it means he killed the person.”

Indeed, the corpses that arrive at 2121 W. Harrison — every other hour of every single day, on average — are still being logged in by hand, and Cina’s staff has fewer than half the doctors it needs, meaning any hope of regaining the accreditation it lost in 2011 is years away.

His predecessor, Dr. Nancy Jones, was pushed out over the summer after lax treatment of bodies at the morgue came to light, pausing on her way out the door to call her boss, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, “evil.” But six weeks into the job, Cina is has only praise for his new employer —“President Preckwinkle’s office wants me to do the right thing . . . she’s a very squared-away, competent lady” — and he is optimistic about the future of the scandal-plagued office.

“I prefer to talk about things moving forward, rather than dwelling on the past, because I wasn’t obviously here,” he said.

By the time he arrived, the mess that splashed into the papers — bodies piled on floors slick with medical waste — had been tidied up.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I did not have to start from Ground Zero here. The president’s administration had laid the groundwork.”

In June, the Department of Labor cited the ME’s office for 21 violations. Now they’re down to two — a deteriorating shelving system in the cooler, and lack of a chemical waste management program. Cina said both will be corrected by December.

Meanwhile staff morale is high.

“The attitudes of the employees was also a pleasant surprise,” Cina said. “You’d think with everything that’s gone on, they would be demoralized. They certainly were tired,” he said. “But the people had a surprisingly positive attitude. Just coming in here it was a lot of smiles. Some tired eyes, but lots of smiles. That made my transition a lot easier.”

He expects that in one year the office will finally be fully-computerized, with bodies entered into a bar code system.

“We’ll be able to track the bodies from the moment they come here,” he said.

Not only will modernization help prevent backlogs — on Thursday there were 204 bodies in a morgue designed to hold 275 — but it will help authorities understand what is killing people.

“We’ll be able to better serve the public health and identify trends,” Cina. said “Let’s say some very hot heroin is out on the streets. We can put ‘heroin’ as cause of death, cross reference with Zip codes to see if there are hot pockets, so the database is going to be remarkably improved.”

New drugs are abused so quickly, there isn’t always a test for what has killed someone.

“Synthetic drugs are coming out so fast, quicker than tests to find them,” he said. “We can have people die of overdoses and medical technology hasn’t caught up yet with what they overdosed from.”

Cina has begun a search for qualified staffers.

“There’s 450 board certified forensic pathologists practicing in the country, so there’s a shortage,” he said. “The demand is extremely high.”

Still, he hopes his office will be fully-staffed within three years.

That should help prompt the National Association of Medical Examiners to return its seal of approval. To be accredited, “no doctor should do more than 250 autopsies a year,” said Cina. “There’s me and five others, with about 5,000 cases a year. If you do the math, the math is not good. Ideally I need to get up to 15, 16. I’ve got several recruits coming in, really hoping to pull in seven or eight by next summer. That will be a big step.”

Besides the medical and logistic challenges, his job is certain to involve political difficulties too. Is Cina ready for the storms to come? Does he have a plan?

“Basically, I‘m going to call ’em like I see ’em,” he said. “If I get an inordinate amount of pressure, I don’t intend to buckle or break under it.”

Having been a coroner in Colorado, he’s glad to be working in a medical examiner system.

“Coroners are under more pressure than MEs, especially out West, where the coroner is also often the funeral home director, and families say, ‘Well, I really don’t want this to be a suicide.’ I don’t have to deal with that — I’m not in the funeral home business. This is my full-time job.”

Speaking of which, so there isn’t any interference from his $5,000 a day legal consulting work?

“It never was to the degree it was reported on,” he said. “The $5,000-a-day is if I had to travel out of town for a trial. That happened over the past five years maybe two or three times a year . . . the county has rules on consulting, as to how many hours you can do — I’ve put self-regulations on mine that are less than that — I take eight to 10 a week when you’re allowed 20. I haven’t hit that yet. . . . I’ve been able to put anywhere from 60 to 80 hours per week in this job since I’ve been here, and just a few hours here and there in consulting, which I’ve been doing while I watch the Bears play. So it’s not been any conflict at all.”

Cina and his family — his wife plus four teenagers, two boys and two girls — are moving to the South Loop.

Right now, he’s enjoying settling in to his new job.

“Everyone here is dedicated to serve the people of Cook County,” he said. “I think they understand the sacred nature of the privilege we have, We’re the last physicians to see these patients. Maybe I’m in a honeymoon period, maybe I’m not. But if it stays like this, this is going to be a wonderful place to work.”

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