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Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner brings precision to a grisly job

LARGO — If you die unexpectedly, violently, suspiciously or unnaturally in Pasco or Pinellas County, your last stop before you get where you're going is a tidy two-story building tucked away on Ulmerton Road.

You'll arrive in a truck, and usually in a body bag. You'll be put on a long plastic cart with wheels and a drip pan that's stopped up with a cork for your body fluids.

The room will smell like rose-flavored cleaning solution and look like a mix between a kitchen and a science classroom. You'll be wheeled up to a station between two squishy mats on the floors that make dissection easier on knees. There will be a scale that looks like it belongs in a grocery store produce aisle. Underneath that, a big cutting board you might see in a restaurant. Plastic containers filled with pieces of organs will sit nearby.

In that room — the surgery area of the District 6 Medical Examiner's Office building — Dr. Jon Thogmartin can get through an autopsy in about an hour. His job, and the job of the about 47 who work for him, is to figure out why you died. What killed you? What happened?

Then there's this question: What would make someone want to be a medical examiner anyway?

• • •

Thogmartin, 50, lean with short hair, wears glasses and seems more comfortable in scrubs than a suit. He has a big smile, but he can be stern. You could call him decisive.

He was born in Wellington, Texas, and grew up in Dallas. His father worked in natural gas and his mother was a teacher. He has one sister, and his family is very important to him. He ran long distance in high school and college, and he keeps it up to stay in shape.

Being healthy is important to him, especially because of all the things he sees at work. He went into medicine because he's good at science and has an "excellent memory." He did a fellowship in forensic pathology at the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office in 1995, was appointed the area medical examiner by Jeb Bush, and has worked as M.E. through every governor since.

He performed the autopsy on Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged St. Petersburg woman who garnered national headlines over whether to remove her feeding tube. He is quoted on Schiavo's Wikipedia page. He has testified in court countless times.

It's his job, and the job of his office, to keep statistics on all deaths in the district. Those deaths are categorized in five ways — natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined.

"The easiest are the suicides," Thogmartin says. "If someone shoots himself and leaves a note, they're very courteous."

A healthy 30-year-old adult with no obvious injuries — those are the harder ones. "In those cases, you hope the toxicology comes back with something."

The most common deaths are motor vehicle fatalities.

"Buy a big car," Thogmartin says.

Among homicides, gunshot wounds are the most prevalent, followed by blunt trauma (such as falling off a building) and then sharp-force injury (stab and knife wounds).

Thogmartin sees trends, and some of them bother him. For example, one of the most common causes of infant deaths is sleeping with parents. He has seen too many cases of babies under 4 months old suffocating because their parents rolled over on them in bed. Infants don't usually develop the ability to turn over by themselves until 4 months, he said.

• • •

All of this death, you'd think, would do something to a man's psyche.

Does it make him view death differently? No, Thogmartin said. He does a job.

"You objectify the decedent," he said. "Anything else is beyond my realm of expertise. I'm not a philosopher. I'm not a social scientist. I stick to what I know."

Pasco Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis has worked with Thogmartin since the doctor's tenure began. He calls Thogmartin a real asset, and one of the smartest men he knows.

"He's extremely bright," he said. "He's just incredibly credible and knowledgeable."

What really sticks out though, Halkitis said, is Thogmartin's ability to take complicated medical language and present it to jurors in a way they understand.

"He doesn't impress as a person who thinks they are brighter than you or better than you," Halkitis said. "He's just able to talk to people on a real level."

Some people might see medical examiners the way they view TV character Quincy, M.E. — as a tool for the prosecutor. Not true, Halkitis said. Thogmartin shoots in a straight line. He tells the facts and that's it.

"We're just really lucky we have him working for this community," Halkitis said.

Thogmartin can't watch TV shows about his job because they always get it wrong.

"They're too stupid and riddled with falsehoods," he said. The dead don't stay in a cooler in a basement morgue where bodies with tags on their toes get pulled out of lockers.

Thogmartin, however, is not without levity.

He has a colander in his autopsy station to make sure no gun projectiles get away from him.

"I hate chasing bullets," he said.

He keeps face protectors on hand because his patients sometimes explode. There are boxes and boxes of rubber gloves next to a bucket of powder, because the work gets "really slippery."

He jokes that he has found the cure for cancer: death.

When asked if there is anything he would advise people not to do, seeing that he's all too familiar with all the ways to die, Thogmartin emphasized that smoking is terrible for you. He sees certain types of organ damage that show up only in smokers.

Now, 15 years in, nothing surprises him anymore. He just wants his work to move quickly and efficiently. He understands the bodies are moving on.

"We are a very brief stop on their way to final interment," he said.

Times photographer Doug Clifford contributed to this report.

Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner brings precision to a grisly job 03/07/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 9, 2014 3:42pm]
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