Three years ago, Dr. Edwin S. Sweeney the youngest medical examiner in the United States - says he was thrown into a very large, deep pool of water and told to start swimming.

It was either swim or sink.His office, born in 1965 after nearly 10 years of labor, had never become more than the undernourished child of the Utah Department of Health.

Convinced that the tide isn't likely to turn in the near future, Sweeney - fed up with long hours, low pay and poor working conditions - is bailing out.

But thanks to him, his successor may become a more financially well-fed toddler.

Dr. Suzanne Dandoy, executive director of the Health Department, said the department's personnel office has been instructed to ask the state to review the position and regrade it to a higher salary level - an action prompted by Sweeney's resignation.

The 36-year-old medical examiner said his $71,500 annual salary is very low compared to the average salaries for medical examiners in the West, about $100,000.

Dandoy agrees.

"The whole state salary system for professional staff is low, and for the pathologist in the medical examiner's office it's particularly low," she said.

Oregon recently filled its medical examiner position after its Legislature raised the salary to the upper $80,000s. By comparison, private pathologists in Utah make an average $120,000 a year.

Sweeney will join their ranks when he resigns effective Aug. 26 and takes a position with Western Pathology Consultants, a private firm in Reno, Nev.

But money isn't his only motive for leaving the Beehive State. Working long hours in a autopsy suite where the floors are cracked, the walls are peeling and water is leaking next to the X-ray machine have contributed to his frustration.

"When I took this job my colleagues advised me to have patience," he said. "I think my time is up and it's time for someone else to give it a shot," said the physician, whose office has investigated more than 5,000 deaths and performed more than 800 autopsies during his three-year tenure.

"It's gotten really burdensome," he said. "About 200 to 250 cases per examiner per year would normally be considered a full load, and that's if the examiner has no other responsibilities."

But Sweeney, who shares the duties with Dr. Todd C. Grey, assistant state medical examiner, does have other responsibilities. They include certifying death certificates, filling out stacks of other official state forms, testifying in criminal trials and working with law enforcement officials, families and the press.

"It's a difficult job because it requires long hours as the department is understaffed," Dandoy said.

A burned-out, prematurely gray-haired Sweeney can attest to that. His office is supposed to be staffed by three full-time forensic pathologists, including one resident in training.

However, since he became full-time director in November 1985, the office has never been fully manned. So one of the two doctors has been on call evenings, weekends and holidays, routinely performing autopsies and examinations seven days a week. And, they're beat.

The office of the medical examiner by statute is responsible for the medical investigation of all non-natural deaths (except highway accidents), unexpected and unattended deaths.

Any death in the prison also falls under the medical examiner's jurisdiction. Friday Sweeney examined the body of Arthur Gary Bishop - a responsibility he doesn't take lightly. He, in fact, feels that the medical examiner should have a role in carrying out the death penalty.

"That doesn't imply that we condone the death penalty or are death penalty supporters, but it (our participation) keeps the prisoner from being otherwise abused," Sweeney said. "I don't think anyone should be tortured. Our role is to make sure that what the state says it's going to do is done, and no other injuries are suffered by the prisoner."

Sweeney is Utah's fourth medical examiner in the past 10 years, and one state officials hate to lose.

"Dr. Sweeney has brought a high level of expertise to the office and has developed excellent working relations with law enforcement officials and the medical community with whom he's worked," Dandoy said. "His office is well-respected now by people in the community and (it) is handling its responsibilities in a very efficient manner under his leadership."

Thanks to Sweeney's efforts, the new medical examiner may have smoother sailing. The state plans to have a new facility finished in 1991.

"I am really pleased by this," Sweeney said. "Recruitment to the office will be greatly helped once the new facility has been completed."