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EMS background gives coroner insight

Forensic pathology fascinates coroner

Staff writer

JoAnn Knak of Hillsboro discovered her interest in forensic pathology — investigating causes of death — late in her career.

She directed Marion County ambulance services for 22½ years before retiring in 2003. Knowing what she knows now, if she could return to the time she began her career, she would go to medical school to be a forensic examiner and conduct autopsies, she said.

Knak’s interest began with a blizzard. She was a paramedic at the time and responded to a fatality accident during a snowstorm. She and all the other responders had to wait in the cold and snow for two hours for a coroner to arrive.

After that ordeal, she decided to find out the requirements to become a coroner. Her experience in EMS has influenced her work as coroner in other ways as well. Learning about the stages of grief is part of the training for entry-level emergency medical technicians.

But the two jobs require very different mindsets, she said.

“As an EMS provider, just stay out of my way,” she said. “I have a job to do, and I don’t have time to waste with you.

“As coroner, I have as much time as you want,” she continued. “I will stay until family members or clergy arrive. I will make coffee; I will hold your hand; I will talk about anything you want to talk about. I will not leave a family member unattended.”

Knak is careful to keep her emotions in check when working as coroner.

“That’s no place for me to get emotional,” she said.

A coroner’s job is to investigate unattended deaths and determine if an autopsy is necessary. Coroners work with law enforcement officials to make that determination.

State statute requires a licensed physician or that person’s designee perform the duties of coroner. Knak shares county coroner duties with Karen Larsen of Peabody, she said. Knak is the first one called, and if she is unavailable, Larsen is called.

Knak participated in a 40-hour training course to prepare her for the job. She learned about guns, bullets, knives, blood spatters, and more. For example, she learned how to recognize different bloodstain patterns made by guns.

All of that knowledge is used to determine whether a death was natural, accidental, homicide, or suicide, she said.

Many people have misconceptions about autopsies, she said. The most common is that an autopsy necessitates a closed-casket funeral. Most of the work of an autopsy is done in places that are usually clothed, and examiners try to make any other work as inconspicuous as possible, Knak said.

An autopsy usually takes 24 to 36 hours. Autopsies for Marion County are performed at Sedgwick County Forensic Center in Wichita.

“They are excellent people to work with,” Knak said.

Autopsies can also save lives, she said. On multiple occasions since Knak began working as a coroner, autopsies have found that a person died because of a genetic heart defect. Siblings were tested and found to have the same defect, and they were able to take action to prevent problems.

Knak also uses her position as coroner to help preserve the dignity of the recently deceased. People should continue to be treated with respect after death, she said.

Knak taught EMS Director Steve Smith in his training to become an EMT. He said that anyone who knew her wouldn’t be surprised by how seriously she takes her job as coroner.

“We all know she’s protective of her patients, including those that are dead,” he said. “She demands respect for them.”

Knak continues to volunteer on Hillsboro’s ambulance crew.

Last modified Sept. 16, 2010

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