Jackson County chief medical examiner tells why she likes her job
As a young girl growing up in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Diane Peterson always was around when her father cleaned game he had killed.
“What does this do?” her father, a wildlife biologist and avid hunter and outdoorsman, would ask as he pointed to a part of the animal’s body.
“And what does this do?” he’d challenge her.
“I always really had a love of anatomy,” she said. So it’s not surprising she’d find a career determining the cause of a person’s death.
Peterson, now 38, recently became the new Jackson County chief medical examiner. She replaced Mary Dudley, who retired last fall after serving eight years at the helm.
“A lot of this job is anatomy — autopsy obviously is the epitome of anatomy,” Peterson said.
In a field of several candidates, Peterson was the right choice, Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. said in an email.
“Having worked closely with her predecessor, Dr. Peterson has the benefit of seeing first-hand the progress we have made in the ME’s office,” he said. “… I am convinced she will continue that progress, and will make the office even more professional.”
Peterson grew up in Americus, Kan., a small town north of Emporia, Kan. She initially wanted to be a doctor. But that desire faded.
She attend Kansas State University for her undergraduate work, and worked in a lab in the biology department.
Most of her lab classmates were headed to medical school. A professor urged her to take that path too. But Peterson didn’t want to be a medical doctor.
One winter break, she took a course on death investigation. During that two-week period, she heard from everyone involved in the process, including funeral home employees and law enforcement officers.
She even went through a mock crime scene in Topeka and watched an autopsy.
“I was essentially hooked,” Peterson said.
She finished her bachelor’s degree, with a major in microbiology, and earned her medical degree at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
For her residency, she studied anatomic and clinical pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Afterward, she had a fellowship in forensic pathology at the university.
“So I came to medical school wanting to do forensic pathology, which is unusual, and essentially did not change my mind through four years of medical school and four years of residency.”
After her fellowship, Peterson and her husband, William Peterson, a physician with Kidney Associates of Kansas City, wanted to return to the Midwest to be closer to family.
She contacted Dudley and in August 2010, Peterson joined the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office as a deputy medical examiner.
The office handles death investigations for Kansas City and Jackson, Clay, Platte and Cass counties and for other area counties on a case-by-case referral basis.
The office annual budget of about $2.9 million provides for 23 employees when fully staffed. It handles about 1,800 death investigations a year, including 700 to 800 autopsies. Not every case warrants an autopsy, said Peterson, whose salary as chief medical examiner is $215,000.
Erik Mitchell, a forensic pathologist with Frontier Forensics Midwest in Kansas City, Kan., spoke favorably of Peterson, saying she’s a good choice by the county, and she will take care of the office.
“She has analytical skills, and she applies them,” he said. “She’s an approachable person as far as I can tell. She’s reasonable. I think you are going to see somebody who’s thoughtful of the work that she does and who’s interested in that work.”
Dudley was hired in 2007 to turn around an office that was under fire from area prosecutors. During her tenure, she improved the office’s credibility and credentials. The office twice has been accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners.
In a 2013 story in The Star, however, Dudley drew criticism for the low percentage of autopsies performed on suspected suicide victims. Experts also were critical of Dudley’s unwillingness to use “undetermined” when labeling the cause and manner of death. She limited “undetermined” to skeletons, charred remains or badly decomposed bodies — a philosophy more restrictive than experts advised.
When it comes to autopsies in suspected suicides, Peterson said she doesn’t believe that rate has changed, nor does she plan to push for changes.
The majority of suicides the office sees involve a person who uses a gun. Hangings and overdoses are the next most common methods.
Generally speaking, investigations into overdose suicides would include autopsies, she said. But for the other common ways of suicide, the death tends to be more clear cut.
When it comes to labeling the cause and manner of death, Peterson said she will be more willing to use “undetermined.”
“There are going to be cases where at the end of the day, at the end of an autopsy, a toxicology, a histology … you still just don’t know the manner of death, especially with babies,” she said.
She doesn’t shy away from saying she doesn’t know. She’d rather do that than create something that may not be true.
Peterson plans to continue to seek re-accreditation. “It helps ensure that we do good quality work, that we do excellent work, that we do what we are supposed to be doing,” she said.
While being a medical examiner helps feed her life-long love of anatomy, the job’s variety also is rewarding, said Peterson, a mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Sydney, and a 3-year-old son, Kendan.
“I get to spend some time in my office. I get to spend some time in the morgue. I get to spend some time in court,” she said.
She deals with a diverse group of people, including family members of the deceased, law enforcement officers, attorneys and community members.
“Basically, every day is completely different, and I like that,” she said. “I don’t like doing the same thing all day every day. I need the variety, and this job definitely gives variety.”