The ME's Office 'In Good Hands'
SEPTEMBER 15, 2016 - jacksongov.org
Dr. Diane Peterson Completes First Year
As Jackson County Chief Medical Examiner
She wanted to be a doctor. As a little girl, growing up in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Diane Peterson displayed an early fascination with anatomy and was soon imagining herself becoming a physician.
Then she got older. And she just couldn’t see herself being able to treat patients.
“When I got to high school, I changed my mind about becoming a doctor,” she says. “I didn’t think I would be able to handle seeing people in pain.”
But, today, the people Dr. Peterson examines are — in her words — “freed of their pain.” They are deceased.
A Strong Recommendation
This month marks one year since Dr. Peterson was named interim Chief Medical Examiner for Jackson County. When Dr. Mary Dudley retired as Chief ME at the end of August last year, she strongly urged the county to make Dr. Peterson her successor, saying, “I’m leaving the Medical Examiner’s Office in good hands — Dr. Peterson’s hands.”
Earlier this year, County Executive Frank White, Jr. announced that after a nationwide search the best person for the job had been found. She was already in Chief ME’s Office. With White making her promotion permanent, Dr. Peterson was able to drop the interim tag in March.
“Dr. Dudley had helped make our ME’s Office a model office, respected around the nation,” states County Executive White. “Dr. Peterson joined the office in 2010, so she played a crucial part in the progress the office had made, too. She knows the ins and outs of the office and of Jackson County, and she is dedicated to assuring the ME’s Office not only meets, but also helps set the highest standards.”
When she interviewed for her Deputy ME position with Jackson County, Dr. Peterson expressed interest in becoming — “someday down the road” — the Chief Medical Examiner. Dr. Dudley often assigned Peterson administrative tasks, in addition to her normal medical duties, and would discuss different tactics for handling issues as they arose.
“Dr. Dudley educated me while she was still here,” says Dr. Peterson, adding, “It meant a lot having her support. She showed a lot of faith in my abilities, both as a physician, doing the medical job, and my abilities as an administrator. That was a big vote of confidence.”
Becoming An MD
After her epiphany in high school about not wanting to continually see people in pain, Peterson embarked on her undergraduate studies at Kansas State intent on still becoming a doctor — of the PhD variety, rather than MD. She majored in microbiology and planned on doing medical research.
Then during the winter break of her fourth year at K-State, she took a two-week course about death investigation. The class included visiting a mock crime scene and observing an actual autopsy.
“I was thoroughly impressed,” she recalls, “and I have been hooked ever since.”
Shifting her focus to becoming a forensic pathologist required a fifth year of undergrad work, so she could take the necessary pre-med courses. She then graduated from the University of Kansas School of Medicine and did her residency work at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She also completed a forensic pathology fellowship at UAB.
A doctor’s formal education, Peterson points out, entails very little instruction about dealing with administrative tasks — tasks she must now perform as Chief ME. She estimates during her four-year residency one month of training was dedication to being an administrator. “And that was in terms of being a lab director.”
“A lot of it from an administrative perspective I learned through on-the-job training from Dr. Dudley,” Peterson says. “I’m still learning on-the-job.”
Dr. Peterson describes her leadership style as a work in progress. She’s trying to model herself after the supervising doctors she met at UAB. They tended to say very little, remained calm when others would get upset, and logically approached solving problems.
“They listened first, then gave their two cents,” she says. “They would sit there, quietly taking it all in, thinking about it, and then having an intelligent answer to resolve an issue.
“That’s the kind of leader I want to be.”
Striving For Excellence
And Dr. Peterson wants the Jackson County ME’s Office to continue being a leader among its peers. The National Association of Medical Examiner’s (NAME) has often described the county ME’s Office as being a “model office for others across the nation.” When accrediting the office in 2009 and again in 2014, NAME inspectors did not find one deficiency.
NAME accreditation now requires ME’s Offices to also conduct annual self-inspections. In April of this year, the Jackson County ME’s Office was again determined to have zero deficiencies. (No other county in Missouri has a NAME-accredited medical examiner’s office.)
Does zero deficiencies equate to being perfect?
“Of course not,” says Dr. Peterson, herself a certified NAME inspector. “What the zero deficiencies means is we are doing high quality work — that we’re as perfect as we can possibly be…. This is important because it shows that we are meeting the highest standards for our profession. Our community has come to expect that out of this office.”
The NAME inspection checklist includes more than 350 items, many related to facilities. In June of 2015, Jackson County opened a new Medical Examiner’s Office. While the new facilities include state-of-the-art autopsy suites, Dr. Peterson emphasizes that among the most crucial improvements is a “warmer” atmosphere, especially in the area where family members may be asked to wait before talking with an investigator or possibly viewing a body.
“In our old facility, we just had a chair,” she says. “Here we have a proper waiting room. A family won’t spend a lot of time in there, but it’s a more gentle space than we used to have. We encourage families to wait to view their loved ones at the funeral home. A funeral home is better suited for that. Sometimes a family does have to come in here, though.
“They’re in pain. Our job is to be as comforting as we possibly can be.”
Following The Trailblazers
Most Chief Medical Examiners are still men. Only about one in five is a woman.
Dr. Diane Peterson is now the third woman to serve as Jackson County’s Chief Medical Examiner. The second was her immediate successor Dr. Mary Dudley, while the first was Dr. Bonita J. Peterson (no relation) from 1973 through ’89.
“I suspect you’re going to see more and more women named chief medical examiners,” says Dr. Diane Peterson. “The fellowships in forensic pathology are being split 50-50 between men and women now, so there are more women becoming MEs.”
County Executive Frank White, Jr. named Dr. Peterson the permanent Chief ME in March, after she served six months in an interim basis. Dr. Dudley retired last summer following eight years (2007-15) as Jackson County Chief ME and a long career that also included being the Chief ME of Sedgwick County, Kan. (Wichita).
“Dr. Mary Case over in St. Louis is one of the female trailblazers among chief medical examiners,” says Peterson. “Dr. Dudley, in a way, followed onto that trail and helped extend it.”
When first meeting Dudley, Dr. Peterson — she joined the Jackson County staff as a deputy medical examiner in 2010 — noted she’d like to one day be the Chief ME. She didn’t expect the opportunity to present itself so soon. At 38, she is among the younger Chief MEs in the nation.
“I became a chief five years after getting done with my fellowship,” she says. “That’s pretty fast.”
Dr. Diane Peterson’s office is much like anyone else’s in Jackson County. It’s crowded — with photos of and drawings by her two children. The only hints this might be the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office are the microscope and a small Halloweenish novelty: a hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil and see-no-evil figurine, featuring skulls with boney hands.
“Dr. Peterson may look even younger, but she is exceptionally well qualified,” says Jackson County’s Chief of Health Services Jaime Rogers. “She’s an outstanding professional — very calm, obviously very smart.”
Rogers joined the County Executive’s staff in early July. Her background includes working for the State of Kansas Department for Children and Families, the Wyandotte County (Kan.) Sheriff’s Office as the jail’s mental health program manager and the Kansas City, Kan. Police Department as the victim services program supervisor — and she’s been a member of a federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT).
In her role as Jackson County Chief ME, Dr. Peterson heads up training for the local team — the Kansas City Regional Mortuary Operational Response Group — that would be activated after a mass-fatality disaster.
“Dr. Peterson has welcomed me to participate in that training,” Rogers says. “If I could go back, this is the field I’d go into, forensic science.”
Dr. Peterson recalls her family’s response to her telling them she wanted to become a medical examiner.
“I’d go hunting and fishing with my dad (a wildlife biologist) and ask him all kinds of questions about the animals’ anatomy,” she says. “What does that part do? What does that do? When I told my family this is what I wanted to do, they said, ‘That makes sense.’”