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Jerry Davich: Infant deaths top Lake County coroner’s agenda

Jerry Davich.

Jerry Davich.

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Updated: October 16, 2013 6:15AM



Today’s column on the Lake County Coroner’s Office is a follow-up to my previous one profiling the Porter County Coroner’s Office, which deals with homicides, suicides, accidents and natural deaths.

These deaths don’t attract front-page headlines or back-pew prayers, but they take place in our proverbial backyard on a daily basis. Again, I’m giving you a peek behind the coroner’s curtain, which typically conceals the grim reaper’s gruesome handiwork.

Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey was interrupted by another “coroner call” during my interview with her on Thursday afternoon.

“There’s another death somewhere in the county,” she said before returning to our conversation.

A day earlier, Frey received five coroner calls: Two deaths of Lake County residents in their 40s; a middle-aged man who died of an illness; a Gary teenager who got hit by a train; and an elderly Valparaiso woman who drove her car into Hobart’s Lake George.

That same day, Frey worked closely with a local forensic odontologist (the study of teeth and dental records) to make a positive identification of a woman involved in a house explosion in Lowell earlier in the week.

“As you see, my role as coroner is a dedicated full-time position,” said Frey, who prides herself on taking every call, 24/7. “I sleep with my cell phone under my pillow.”

A county coroner’s role is much more than simply pronouncing decedents “really most sincerely dead,” as Oz’s Munchkin coroner famously quipped. Especially in Lake County, a heavy populated, crash-prone, disease-ridden, homicide-littered county.

Not to mention that the county is home to eight hospitals, 17 municipalities, and several major interstate highways, including the often-perilous Borman Expressway.

“Our office never closes,” said Frey, whose office handles roughly 1,000 cases each year.

Frey, a registered nurse and forensic nurse examiner who started here on Sept. 15, 2012, has already handled 15 cases of Sudden Unexplainable Infant Deaths, or SUID, this year. In fact, Lake County has the highest rate in the state of such deaths, with Indiana ranking second in the country for SUIDs, she noted.

This issue troubles Frey, explaining why she focused on it during most of our chat regarding her office, her daily duties and the routine business of visiting death scene after death scene.

“What bothers me the most is that all of those infant deaths that we handled were preventable,” she said. “Half of those infant deaths were from positional asphyxiation or suffocation.”

In other words, either a parent rolled over on their baby or the infant was improperly put to sleep, possibly (and wrongly) surrounded by stuffed animals, pillows, toys or other soft objects. Higher incidence rates occur in African-American and Hispanic communities, data show.

Young parents should remember their ABCs: Babies should sleep “Alone,” on their “Back” and in a “Crib.”

A national “Safe Sleep” public service campaign is in full force to educate new parents, including an informative DVD presentation that can be played in pediatricians’ waiting rooms.

“We’re doing whatever we can to get the message out,” said Frey, who has given presentations to various groups, organizations and at public meetings.

Frey works with a round-the-clock staff of two medical doctor pathologists, two assistants, nine full-time investigators, one chief, one administrator and a few part-timers.

“I’m very proud of my team and this office,” she said, noting the importance of working closely with other county officials including the sheriff, prosecutor and police departments. “It’s crucial that we preserve the integrity of every investigation.”

Frey said the toughest part of her job — a job she obviously loves — is witnessing the reaction of parents who just lost their child, of any age. But especially of new parents who could have prevented their infant’s death.

“I don’t want Lake County to continue to lead the state in this category,” she said.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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