Medical examiner gets more space; state gets better lab

Officials: New facility has newer technology, allows more efficiency

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comOctober 8, 2012 


— Mentioning North Carolina’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner generally conjures images of pathologists huddled over autopsy tables.

Now the state medical examiner will share an address with the North Carolina Laboratory of Public Health, the agency responsible for examining hazardous substances that could be used as bio-weapons, testing for rabies infections and screening blood samples of newborn babies for birth disorders.

Gov. Bev Perdue and state medical leaders cut the ribbon Monday on a $52 million medical examiner facility on District Drive in West Raleigh. The move-in will begin later this month and should be completed by early next year. About 270 people will work at the new facility.

“We outgrew our old facility (in Chapel Hill) 15 years ago,” said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch.

That office is part of University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.

The state lab also provides services such as testing the safety of the state’s water and milk supplies, studying communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and helping medical authorities determine the source of epidemics such as the E. coli outbreak traced to the 2004 State Fair that sickened more than 100 children who touched animals at a petting exhibit.

The old lab, which first opened in downtown Raleigh in 1973, does not have the space or specialized equipment to meet today’s needs, state officials said. Those needs changed considerably after 9/11.

“Prior to 2001, none of these things existed,” said Myra Brinson, who manages the state lab’s virology section.

Cutting-edge laboratories

The new, 222,000-square-foot facility is equipped with cutting-edge equipment and triples the pathologists’ capacity to conduct autopsies and meets national standards for a bioterrorism and hazardous chemicals laboratory.

The new medical examiner’s office has two morgues, with the larger one capable of holding up to 70 bodies. There is also a space outside the building where two refrigerated tractor trailer trucks can hold more bodies in the event of mass casualties.

There are two autopsy rooms. The main autopsy suite contains four tables where pathologists can perform autopsies simultaneously. The old medical examiner’s office in Chapel Hill has only two gurneys for autopsies.

“It definitely increases our efficiency,” Radisch said. “With two tables you are basically waiting to perform an autopsy all day.”

The new offices are also equipped with an X-ray machine that can digitally scan a body in 13 seconds or nine bodies in an hour, to locate a bullet or help identify victims by revealing old bone breaks, artificial joints or dental structures.

“The X-ray is the best way to identify people,” Radisch said.

The Bioterrorism & Emerging Pathogens Unit on the third floor can only be entered through a series of protocols that include fingerprint and eye scans. That level of security and safety extends to technicians who work in a room in the unit that has filtered air.

To enter the lab, technician La’Vonda Benbow was outfitted in several layers of water and soak-resistant clothing. She wore a respirator, with its own filter, on her waist that pumped oxygen into her facemask.

“If there is any pathogen in the air, it gets caught in the filter,” said Royden Saah, who manages the bioterrorism unit.

The work performed on the third floor “touches every citizen in North Carolina,” Saah said.

So does the newborn screening lab on the second floor.

Dr. Shu Chaing and colleagues Hari Patel and Ann Grush noted that the blood of virtually every baby born in North Carolina – about 130,000 each year – is screened soon after birth. The technicians at the state lab use technology that was developed at Duke University in the late 1990s to search for more than 25 genetic disorders such as profound mental retardation, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

“I know my child is directly benefiting from the work that goes on here,” Saah said. “What we do in these labs helps my kids and my community.”

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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