Autopsies within two days instead of six weeks

One of the island’s seven forensic pathologists believes that if the long-promised public morgue is finally built and properly staffed, autopsies could be completed within a day or two, instead of four to six weeks as happens now.

“The ideal thing is to have the suite so that we can do the post-mortem on the same day or the next day at the latest,” Dr SN Prasad Kadiyala told the Jamaica Observer. “Currently, in Jamaica, we are doing autopsies in about four to six weeks’ time, which is not at all an ideal situation.”

Dr Prasad, a State pathologist, was commenting following the most recent indications by the Government that it would be reviving shelved plans to construct a public morgue at a cost of $555.9 million. The facility, which is being promised to materialise in “two years”, should see the long-awaited forensic pathology autopsy suite gracing Jamaica’s capital a stone’s throw from Kingston Public Hospital, the island’s premier trauma centre.

Information Minister Fayval Williams had made the disclosure during a post-Cabinet press briefing, saying that the executive had given approval for construction of the morgue to be included in the public sector investment programme. She said approval was also given for the provision of fiscal support.

The announcement was welcomed by Dr Prasad who said the facility would be a huge improvement on what now exists.

“It will be much easier for us to appreciate the wounds and to make a complete examination of the body. In spite of the drawback we are having, we are able to fulfil up to 90 per cent of the time all the requirements of the law, but even though we are not compromising, it is not the ideal situation,” he told the Observer.

In the meantime, he said the suite alone would not do.

“It would improve the storage of the bodies but we need more human resources in the form of pathologists, pathologist assistants, morgue attendants, more morgue technicians and the other staff,” he said of the pathology suite.

Additionally, he said there is need for a culture shift because the attitudes of relatives have contributed to delays.

“There should be public education as well. Most of the time at one point we were doing post-mortems within the week but the family members are reluctant. A lot of them are reluctant to come to the post-mortem to identify the body,” Dr Prasad stated.

Where deaths occur under violent circumstances he said pathologists are also challenged.

“The ideal situation is to do X-rays of all the gunshot cases… which we are not able to do before the post-mortem examination. We are doing it only after doing the post-mortem examination. When we see that they did not retrieve some of the bullets, the autopsy is deferred and the bullets are taken and later on the body is brought back to the autopsy table and we continue the post-mortem. These things take some amount of time. This can be avoided with the newer suite if they provide all the equipment,” he told the Observer.

Former deputy mayor of Kingston Lee Clarke is adamant that the pathology suite is needed, but feels it will not materialise this time around either.

“The pandemic has shown us we must plan for down the road. When I was deputy mayor the situation that existed [that] if we have an India type situation we have nowhere to put the dead,” he pointed out.

His reference was to the dire straits being experienced in India where COVID-19 deaths and cases are mounting faster than authorities can handle under a virulent second wave of the novel coronavirus.

“We have such a massive tourism industry that we should have these areas in place. A public morgue in a city is to make sure that the Government of the day has somewhere that they can put the dead,” he said while expressing concern for the State’s ability to handle multiple fatalities if the country had a plane crash.

“When I was a little boy we had the Kendal train crash where we had 200 to 300 bodies at one time and funeral homes can maybe store only 10 bodies at a time,” Clarke said.

The Kendal train crash, which occurred in 1957 ,was described as the worst transportation system tragedy in Jamaica’s history, and the second worst rail disaster in the world at the time. It left 187 dead and 700 injured. Many were later buried in a mass grave near the crash site in Manchester.

Clarke said a natural disaster would wreak even more havoc.

“Now, if you have maybe an earthquake we are due an earthquake in this country now, not that we want it and also we are a volcanic island. We must plan down the road. We are past due and we are building these high [rise] apartments. We need to have infrastructure in place,” he argued.

He said while successive governments have twiddled their thumbs, the cost for building such a facility has kept rising.

“The land was bought from us [local authority] for so long, I don’t know if we were paid but it was given to them. The delay is costing us much each year,” he argued.

Clarke is, however, doubtful that the morgue will be a reality.

“We don’t know how long COVID is going to last, and in my mind it is three years before it peters out. We are going to need money for the health sector far more than what is allocated right now,” he said.

“The money for that [public morgue] is not money that is there [in government coffers], it would have to be taken from somewhere else,” he theorised.

In the meantime, officials say the lack of an autopsy suite has resulted in several issues over the years, chief of which was the cost of outsourcing the services to privately operated funeral homes. Over the past five years alone, it has cost the Government $482 million for the storage of bodies.

The island has not had a national morgue since the 1970s. The Edward Seaga-led Jamaica Labour Party Government was advanced in planning the construction of a new morgue when it lost the elections in 1989. Successive administrations have since mooted the construction of a modern facility.

The plan was revived with renewed fervour following the 2007 shock passing of Pakistan Cricket Coach Bob Woolmer while the island hosted the ICC Cricket World Cup, sparking an investigation that unveiled inadequacies on several levels. That year, then national security minister under the People’s National Party Government, Dr Peter Phillips said the Woolmer investigation “brought into focus the need for the most up to date forensic capabilities possible, including, most importantly, the construction of a new public morgue”.

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