Local News

Delayed autopsy results leave families left waiting for answers

Posted November 10, 2021 5:36 p.m. EST
Updated November 10, 2021 6:59 p.m. EST

A father is desperate for answers about what happened to his son, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at 36 years old.

The hold up: The autopsy results.

WRAL News requests autopsy reports for cases quite frequently. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the turnaround was typically between four and six weeks. Lately, it's taken much longer.

Jud Patterson of Johnston County was distraught after being told it might take as long as six months before he'd know what caused his son's death.

"It’s hard to describe. I would like to know that, that there wasn’t anything I could have done," said Patterson.

He lost his 36-year-old son Reynolds in early August. His roommate found him, but assumed he was just sleeping and left for work. When he returned home, Reynolds was still there.

"What were his last minutes like? Did he know that he was dying or did he die in his sleep?" wonders Patterson.

More than three months later, Patterson is still waiting for answers from his son’s autopsy. He’s been told results would take between three and six months.

Medical Examiner's office acknowledges COVID has made their "responsiveness take longer"

5 On Your Side contacted the office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which oversees the eight autopsy centers across the state where medical examiners investigate all deaths that are suspicious, unusual or unnatural in nature.

Because of a variety of factors, they said there is no "typical time frame" for a report to be finished. However, they acknowledge that the pandemic has impacted response time, writing the following:

"We are able to perform our mission, but in times of pandemic, our responsiveness can take longer. As with all other state agencies, NC OCME has implemented social distancing and other health hygiene measures, which limit the number of employees in the office at any given time. Like many North Carolinians, our staff and medical examiners, families and loved ones are also directly impacted by COVID-19 limiting their ability to work. Our contracted facilities, part of the NC Medical Examiner System, also face the same challenges."

5 On Your Side also asked about autopsy case load

  • In 2019, medical examiners handled 11,809 cases.
  • In 2020, when the pandemic hit, that number rose to 13,787.
  • So far in 2021, they have completed 12,358 autopsies and have 2,316 cases pending completion.

Autopsy delays also impact life insurance

For the families waiting for answers, the delays have another impact.

"There was a life insurance policy on Reynolds. Until there’s a definitive cause of death, that’s still pending," said Patterson.

He says he just wants to understand what's causing the delay – as well as get answers, not only for him, but for other families in his situation.

Families and next of kin can reach the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner through the Family Inquiries line by calling 919-743-9000 or 800-672-7024, then pressing 3 during business hours.

Patterson has called the line, and he tells 5 On Your Side while conversation was very friendly, no one could tell him where his son’s case stands.

He hopes sharing his heartache over the delays will prompt action.

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