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Caseload for Hardin County Coroner hits all-time high

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Suicides, overdoses contribute to the spike

By Bob White

 

2008 stats 401 cases Suicides - 17 Accidental – 22 Homicide – 4 Natural – about 85 percent of total * An estimate of preliminary stats only.   2007 stats 357 cases Suicides – 13 Accidental – 23 Homicide – 7 Natural – 86.8 percent of total

*Figures shown are the sums for 2007.  

By BOB WHITE

bwhite@thenewsenterprise.com

 HARDIN COUNTY – Last year was an all-time high for the number of homicides in Hardin County, but 2008 is producing a record-high caseload for the county coroner, including a spike in suicides and drug overdoses.

For the first time, the Hardin County Coroner’s office worked more than 400 cases in a single year — topping the previous five-year average by more than 12 percent.

The caseload last year was 357 but, as of Tuesday, the coroner’s office already had worked 401 cases in 2008, according to Coroner Dr. Bill Lee.

Since 2003, the yearly caseload for the five-person Hardin County coroner’s office held steady between 349 (2006) and 366 (2005).

While Lee said “there’s no good reason for” the increase, he noted a significant rise in the suicide and overdose cases he and the four deputy coroners in his office have worked this year.

“We’ve had four (suicides) in the past month,” Lee said.

At a 20-year high of 17, Lee said he suspects the economic crisis contributed to depression and subsequent suicides.

Exact numbers and breakdowns of causes of deaths in his 2008 caseload are not complete, but Lee said a significant portion of the 22 accidental deaths and 17 suicides were caused by prescription drug overdoses.

At least three 2008 deaths were caused by the pain medicine fentanyl, which some addicts ingest orally by chewing a pain patch containing the drug.

Three to four deaths were caused by methadone – another powerful pain medicine that last year was blamed as the leading cause of drug overdoses in Kentucky.

In 2006, methadone was found in the blood of 41 percent of the 484 overdose victims, according to Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy.

The drug was blamed for more than 3,800 deaths nationally in 2004, compared to just 780 in 1999, according to the Office of Drug Control Policy.

Several other deaths were caused by concoctions of drugs taken in toxic doses.

Lee said such cases are difficult to determine whether a person purposely ingested too much, or if death was accidental.

“Drugs can react differently when taken with other drugs,” Lee said. “And each person reacts differently to each drug. A combination of drugs can push ‘em over the limit.”

In a May 2007 news release, State Medical Examiner Dr. Tracey Corey said some overdoses tied to methadone and other prescription narcotics could be prevented by better education of the patient on the drug’s lethality, “especially when used in concert with other prescription drugs.”

Noting a single case of a methamphetamine overdose and death, Lee said legal, prescription drugs were the leading cause of overdoses in Hardin County.

While noting a spike in suicides this year, Lee said 80 to 85 percent of all cases worked by his office show deaths from natural causes. Up to 40 percent of the 401 cases stem from calls he receives from hospital staff.

Lee said he worked only half as many homicides as last year, dropping from 7 total last year.

Coroners do not investigate all deaths,  but could sign anyone’s death certificate.

Physicians have historically signed the death certificates of patients under their care, but Lee said physicians are becoming more hesitant to sign death certificates when there’s a chance that additional factors contributed to a patient’s death.

While not required to do so, Lee said Fort Knox has called for outside assistance on several military deaths this year.

Lee said today’s “litigation minded society” has frightened some who could sign death certificates away from doing so.

“And rightfully so,” he said.

Bob White can be

reached at (270) 505-1750.