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Telling stories of the dead: Medical examiner is passionate about unusual job

Families seek understanding in death of loved ones

Published: Friday, April 12 2013 6:10 p.m. MDT

Medical Examiner Todd Grey poses for a portrait at the State Medical Examiner's office in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 5, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — More than 26 years since he handled his first autopsy in Utah, Dr. Todd Grey still fields the occasional phone call from a family member wanting to talk – again – about what happened to their lost loved one.

Some of these calls date almost as far back as his move to the state in 1986. And, as Utah's chief medical examiner for the past 25 years, Grey says he is more than happy to answer their questions, to try to make sense of the often senseless.

"This is what we think happened. This is what we think it means," Grey says, recounting the conversations. "I talk to families and relatives and no one's happy, but they're certainly desperate to try and understand what's going on and if we can give them some sense of understanding, then that's an important part of the job."

He is a regular fixture in courtrooms, where he takes the stand and identifies himself — "Todd Cameron Grey, G-R-E-Y" — and recites his credentials: Undergraduate degree from Yale, medical school at Dartmouth, additional training in forensics and pathology in Florida and California.

"Our job is to tell the story of the dead person," he said of himself and his colleagues. "We are not responsible for saying 'whodunit,' we say what done it. And one of the things that I think is very important for the office's reputation is that we are an honest broker of what happened to the dead person, not necessarily an advocate for one side or the other."

Identifying "what done it" also reveals some of Utah society's biggest problems: drug overdose and suicide, which make up the bulk of their exams. The criminal cases are the minority of their investigations, he said.

"We are much more involved in public health than we are necessarily in criminal stuff," Grey said. "We're the ones able to say, 'Here are trends in mortality we need to pay attention to.' Probably the most striking example of that is the whole prescription drug death epidemic that is going on.

"We were the ones that first sounded that alarm, saying, 'From what used to be very uncommon, we are now seeing these cases on a daily basis.'" And that really was part of our public health role."

Grey's anatomy

Grey's journey to the autopsy table as a medical examiner in Salt Lake City "wasn't right down a narrow path." The areas where he grew up sound like a bumper sticker: Tokyo, Paris, London and Hong Kong.

When he returned to the United States to pursue an undergraduate degree, he had planned on becoming an academic anthropologist. It was something that interested him, but he had his reservations.

"It was a much more limited field and also something where it was much more of a taking kind of a thing," Grey said. "You know you go visit these people in remote areas and base a career on the study of them and I thought, 'Well maybe I should do something which is both, which has more options and maybe more giving back' and decided medical school would be interesting.

"I wasn't one of those kids who was dissecting roadkill at the age of 6. It was a late decision to go to medical school."

Still, it was pediatrics, not pathology, on which he chose to focus his studies. He was already into his residency in pediatrics when he found that he wasn't happy. For one thing, he didn't like dealing with pain, much less having to inflict it. He also didn't mix well with sleep deprivation.

"Back then, when there were no rules about how many hours they worked you, sleep deprivation was a very big part of medical training," he said. "So I thought, 'Well what branch of medicine minimizes sleep deprivation and doesn't have to deal with pain? Ah, pathology.' And pathology was intellectually very interesting. I wasn't bothered by the 'ew' factor."

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