“People are dying to see me,” quipped Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Glenn Wagner as he began leading a tour of the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office on a rainy night. Dealing with death and its traumatic aftermath on a daily basis requires Dr. Wagner to use his medical skill, human compassion, and yes, even to maintain a sense of humor. Dr. Wagner is indeed a charismatic man with a long list of accomplishments. He became the San Diego Chief Medical Examiner in 2003, after serving 33 years in the military, retiring as a Captain in the Medical Corps of the United States Navy and the commanding officer of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.   In addition to his medical training, Dr. Wagner also graduated from the Philadelphia Police Academy and was a police detective and crime scene investigator for 6 years.

I was one of the lucky ones who went on Dr. Wagner’s tour. Always dealing with sudden death, the night of our tour was no different as Dr. Wagner took breaks to oversee the autopsy of a young woman recently found stuffed inside a suitcase in downtown San Diego. She would later be identified as 21-year-old Shauna Hayes. Her friend, Joshua Palmer was soon arrested and charged with beating and strangling her to death.

During the tour and lecture, Dr. Wagner revealed the following information and fascinating facts:

  • The Medical Examiner’s Office is 84,000 square feet and cost 85 million dollars, which was paid in cash!
  • There are 20,000 deaths recorded annually in San Diego County, with 11,000 of them falling under the Medical Examiner’s jurisdiction. 3,000 bodies actually come to the Medical Examiner, with 85% of them requiring autopsies.
  • 200-300 John Does and Jane Does are seen each year. Through the advancement in DNA, the Medical Examiner is now identifying John Does and Jane Does from as far back as the 1970s.
  • The leading cause of death is drugs, both illicit and prescription, followed by deaths related to being overweight. “Don’t be fat,” said Dr. Wagner. Since 2012, Dr. Wagner has seen 3 people over 1,000 pounds!
  • The weight limit for cremation is 700 pounds. A body weighing more must be dismembered. “Stay under 700 pounds!” kidded Dr. Wagner.
  • The Medical Examiner’s Office seeks answers to the following questions:
    • Who is this person?
    • What was the cause of death?
    • When was the time of injury/time of death?
    • Where did the death occur?
    • How did this person die?
    • Why did someone do this?
    • Who did this?
  • Bodies are kept refrigerated at 34 degrees.
  • Drugs that are found with the deceased are kept in “The Candy Room” and are incinerated every 4 months in the presence of law enforcement.
  • The toxicology unit can recover 30,000 chemical substances.
  • The Medical Examiner’s Office has a Life Sharing Donor Unit. An organ donor can benefit up to 10 people. Skin and tissue donation can benefit 50 recipients. “Please become a donor today!” encourages Dr. Wagner.

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