I-Team investigates backlog at state medical examiner's office
By WFSB Staff
EAST HARTFORD, CT (WFSB) -
It may be a parent's worst nightmare, losing a child. But one parent contacted the I-Team after living through that nightmare, when they couldn't find out why their child died.
When a Wethersfield police officer came to her door, Kathy Hudson never thought it would be her son Gale Cuddy.
"It happened very quickly. He was never sick. He was 38-years-old. You don't expect it," said Kathy Hudson, of Wethersfield.
Cuddy was found dead in his Cromwell condo on Aug. 16. The financial consultant left behind a big, loving family all wondering what happened.
An autopsy was completed on Thursday Aug. 18 at the state's Medical Examiner's office in Farmington, but no cause of death could be found. The cause of death was listed as "pending further studies" and chief medical examiner Dr. H. Wayne Carver said in the unexpected death of a young person, that's not unusual.
Hudson says the shock and sadness was compounded by the unknown. At first she says she was told four to eight weeks for toxicology results.
"Two weeks later they told me it'd be 8 to 12 weeks. I called at 12 weeks, they said at least two weeks," Hudson said.
The autopsy was done on a Thursday, so she called faithfully on that day every week. And every week it got longer and longer. She finally called the I-Team when on week 15 she was told at least two weeks more.
"I'm angry. This is four months out of our lives that we've sat and waited for an answer, on something that could have been done in a day, " she said.
What makes things worse is that Gale's life insurance policy won't pay out until the death certificate is signed. When the funeral home threatened to start charging high interest rates, Hudson borrowed money from friends to pay for her son's final expenses.
"The whole purpose of this place is to supply information that helps people solve problems with difficult deaths, and if we're not publishing it, we're not helping," Carver said.
Carver has been in this office since the mid-80s. He says the recent backlog in his tox lab, as it's called, is because he's lost staff due to early retirements.
"I lost my four most senior people, who included the top three in the chain of command," he said.
He claims he wanted to fill the positions immediately, but says Gov. Dannel Malloy's office wouldn't give the okay.
Mark Ojakian, a Deputy Secretary with the state Office of Policy and Management, says the state is not mind readers. If Carver has needs, the state needs to know about them.
"We have not heard of any additional needs above the ones that we approved. Going back to 2009 even, every position he's requested, especially for the lab because that's a very sensitive area, has been approved. So, I'm quite surprised what Dr. Carver is saying," Ojakian said.
This isn't Carver's first disagreement with the Malloy administration. When they moved some functions out of his office earlier this year, he fired off an angry email saying they should launch a search for a new chief medical examiner.
While the cause of the backlog is up for debate, the result is not. The National Association of Medical Examiners expects 90 percent of cases to be complete in 30 days. It considers it a minor deficiency if 90 percent of all cases aren't finished in 60 days. And say it's a major deficiency if 90 percent of cases aren't complete in 90 days.
"We're not even coming close to those standards at this point," Carver said.
The one thing Carver was adamant about, is that the staff he does have does a great job.
Ojakian said the backlog is not a function of the budget office, it's a function of having a chief medical examiner who operates efficiently and provides the budget office with requests as needed.
When the I-Team told Carver about Cuddy's case he personally reviewed the file. Since the tox testing hadn't even started yet, he sent the case out to a private lab to speed up the answers.
"It would be unreasonably expensive to do all of them, but if we can subcontract some work to an outside laboratory to solve someone's insurance emergency, the first thing we've got to do is identify it and then just do it," Carver said.
Carver also spoke to Hudson personally by phone shortly after he spoke to the I-Team. While it will still be several weeks until the private lab finishes the testing, he did give her more of the information she had longed for. She says all she wants is for no other mother to have to wait this long.
"Put yourself in my shoes. What if it were your family, wouldn't you want to know? An answer, that's all I need and I'll be very content. I may not like the answer, I don't know, but I need that answer. Just as you would. Just as anybody would who's a family unit," Hudson said.
The lab is taking steps to try to fix this for other families. It has posted for some technician positions for the tox lab, but Carver said once they hire for those jobs it will still take up to six weeks to bring the new employees up to speed.