The Little Heart
You know that little heart that is imprinted on your Colorado Driver’s License? Well, it is one of the first things Douglas County Coroner’s Office Medicolegal Death Investigators (MDI) look for when tragedy strikes. That heart is generated at the DMV by you after you decided to save other’s lives when you’ve lost your own.
This little heart icon represents an enormous professional responsibility between the decedent and the Coroner’s or Medical Examiner’s Offices throughout the United States. When you apply for your Driver’s License or renew your License you are asked if you wish to be an organ donor in the event of your death. It has the effect of a trust agreement or contract with some of us in the medical profession. It is the Coroner’s sole responsibility to see this contract is fulfilled. Yes, we discuss organ and tissue donation with your family members, but it is rightfully your decision. All considered, it is a unique opportunity to turn a tragedy into a profound blessing for a recipient – either life-giving or life-enhancing with relief of pain and suffering.
Prior to 2015, Douglas County had no Board-Certified MDIs to expedite the Cause and Manner of Death in the field, and donation efforts were minimal. Today, we are fortunate to have some of the finest MDIs on-call, day-in and day-out, 24/7. They are highly trained in investigating, analyzing, recording and management of death scenes. They are dispatched to the scene within minutes, whether in Hospice, hospital, home or out on the road. The MDIs are the real key to organ procurement and successful transplantation. As you might imagine, the MDIs must correlate considerable medical detail, physical examination of the patient, catalog wounds, describe injuries, evidence of falls, bleeding, infections, etc., all of which may affect organ procurement. Speed and accuracy of this synthesis of information is paramount in transplantation. Tissues begin to deteriorate as soon as circulation ceases and not all tissues deteriorate at the same rate. MDIs then coordinate organ donation through the Coroner and the Donor Alliance – all of this in the midst of bereaved Next of Kin and stunned bystanders. Lest it not be said, some of these investigations are conducted outside, in extreme weather, and even in remote sites. Their ability to quickly reconcile so much technical information and decision-making in the field is essential for the successful use of donated tissues and organs.
When transplantation is not possible, there are other ways that a person’s death can positively impact others. The Coroner’s Office participates in several important research programs across the county. We partner with the Harvard Brain Registry and the Boston Brain Study Center. These agencies have on-going pioneering research in neurologic diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia, concussive injuries, military PTSD injuries, seizures and congenital disorders. In the case of an infant death, research in inherited disease and developmental disorders may be instructive. We do everything possible to provide answers to families and to further prevention through research.
Thanks to the talent in our office and focus on this important issue, Douglas County has risen to the Top County in all of Colorado and Wyoming for organ donation direct referrals for the last 3 years. DCCO Participation in national research programs augments the standing of our efforts. Organ donation is one of the most gratifying parts of my professional career and I attribute program success to my marvelous MDIs. If you are an organ donor, I thank you. I am sure donor recipients are ever more grateful than I can express. That little heart on your Driver’s License means a lot to all of us here at the Coroner’s Office.