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Lycoming County coroner highlights need for forensic pathologist in region

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Executive Plaza.

The county needs a forensic pathologist, Lycoming County’s coroner, Charles Kiessling Jr., told the county commissioners at their recent meeting. And, in an ongoing request, a building to house the pathologist would be welcome, too.

The discussion at the commissioners meeting started when Commissioner Tony Mussare asked Kiessling to explain why there was a larger than normal charge on the weekly account of expenditures for the coroner’s office.

The charges, Kiessling said, were associated with infant deaths from earlier in the year.

“These cases are very complex,” he said. “They take a tremendous amount of time on my staff’s part and we have to leave nothing unturned with these investigations. The pathologists do the same thing.”

“You’ll see in a breakdown on the invoices, there’s additional testing that gets done to be able to try to figure out why these babies are dead. We owe that to our families to be able to say, ‘This is what happened,'” he added.

The costs increase as the coroner’s staff travels to Allentown for the services of a forensic pathologist.

“We spend countless hours up and down the interstate for these autopsies to be done in Allentown,” Kiessling stated.

People have a misconception about what the coroner’s office does with the public’s knowledge often gleaned from television shows, like “CSI,” Kiessling said.

“You’ll notice these invoices just came through five months after the death occurred. All the testing takes that long to get all that stuff done. We’re still doing work on these cases today,” he said.

“That’s why I’ve been saying for 10 years, we need a facility here,” he added.

There have been ongoing discussions with the two local healthcare systems as well as the coroner from Montour county about hiring a forensic pathologist, he noted.

“It’s a tank of fuel every time we run a truck down there,” Kiessling explained. “It’s personnel time. It’s law enforcement time because they’re traveling down for these autopsies. And it’s just part of what we have to do. I don’t have a choice; I can’t bargain shop for forensic pathologists. There’s only about 400 in the country.”

Both local hospital systems are trauma centers and would benefit from having a forensic pathologist locally, as many cases coming from those centers need to be autopsied, he said.

“It would be nice if we had that resource here in Lycoming County versus traveling up and down the interstate,” Kiessling said.

In terms of the building to house the coroner’s services, Kieslling brought up the fact that his staff deals with substances that are deadly and could prove harmful to the families of personnel.

“We’re being exposed,” he said. “When a lot of the other departments were shut down, my office has been going non-stop through this whole COVID thing. We just had another drug death, probably, this year that we’re dealing with right now.”

“We’ve got white powder, fentanyl. We’re handling this stuff, and again, we’re taking stuff home to launder, potentially exposing our family members to the same substance that killed someone. We don’t have the resources to decontaminate vehicles and decontaminate our personnel safely,” he stated.

“The public needs to understand this. We’ve talked about it. We need to get this building project moving,” he said.

Statistics that the coroner shared with the commissioners showed that over the last two years, they handled 700 cases, and this year so far, 300.

“We’re going to be back at the same kind of numbers with or without COVID. These are tragic situations that I have to deal with. There’s no way I can cut corners. We’d save a lot of money if we had a facility here so we’re not trucking up and down the interstate,” he said.

“That’s been a request for 10 years, and nothing’s happened,” he added.

Kiessling brought a stack of letters from coroners and chief administrators from state and local police in the area and neighboring counties in support of hiring a forensic pathologist who would serve other counties as well as Lycoming. There is a possibility of a forensic pathologist situated here to serve about 11 area counties, Kiessling said.

The last time an autopsy was done in Lycoming County was in 2008. Since then, bodies have been transported to Allentown to be autopsied.

The northcentral part of the state is the only area that does not have forensic pathology service, Kiessling noted.

“We have nothing here, and it’s desperately needed. With the drug deaths, the baby deaths, traumatic deaths, homicides. All those cases need to be autopsied and it would be a huge savings if we could do it locally,” he said.

The commissioners assured the coroner that they are working at garnering support from various government officials in order to move forward with acquiring a facility for coroner services.

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