Retired medical examiner relied on empathy and a strong stomach
By Ed Nadolski
Editor in Chief
There are two character traits, according to Tom Terry, that make a good medical examiner – compassion and a strong stomach.
And while he’s always had the latter, Terry – who retired at the end of 2012 after 22 years as Racine County’s medical examiner – it’s providing the former that is more difficult and more important.
“I’ve prayed with some people and I’ve cried with some people,” Terry said of his duty to inform the next of kin following a death. “You try to treat every call like you’d want to have it handled (if it was your own family).”
That was a lesson Terry, 68, of Burlington, learned in a shocking way many years ago as a member of the Burlington Rescue Squad.
As a young man he was a member of a crew that responded to a fatal car crash near Browns Lake. When the coroner at the time arrived drunk, Terry was so taken aback that he stepped up to help out.
“He was in no condition to handle any of his duties,” Terry recalled, adding that he took it upon himself to escort the coroner to the home of the deceased woman’s parents. “I had to hold onto him to get him up the porch.
“I didn’t like the way he delivered the news.”
On the spot, Terry decided he’d help whomever came forward to run against that coroner in the next election.
Soon after John Esayian was elected to the post in 1971, Terry was invited to come on board as a part-time deputy coroner.
“I’ve been there every since,” he said.
Terry credits Esayian with modernizing the office and convincing the County Board to make the conversion from an elected coroner’s position to an appointed medical examiner.
The difference between the two types of offices is night and day.
A coroner simply has to be an adult with the ability to get elected. There is no education or training requirement. Just over 50 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties still rely on a coroner, according to Terry.
While the qualifications to become a medical examiner vary somewhat by county, in most cases they include some type of relevant medical training.
Not only was Terry an emergency medical technician, but he also has a four-year degree in mortuary science and is a licensed funeral director. It is training that served him well when it came to the anatomical and medical challenges of the job.
For roughly 20 years Terry continued to serve as a deputy medical examiner while working in his father’s refrigeration business and eventually starting his own with his wife, Kathy.
In 1990, when Esayian stepped down, Terry was appointed by then-County Executive Jean Jacobson to handle the medical examiner’s office full time.
Since then the office has grown to the point of handling more than 1,200 deaths a year with an available staff of six assistants. Even as he approached retirement, Terry – the only full-time employee of the office – continued to handle more than half of those cases. In 2011, he handled 767 of the county’s 1,291 death investigations.
“The job in the last few years has really become a lot of paperwork,” he said. “But I was always a 24/7 guy.
“I’m still up every day at 5 o’clock.”
Over the years, Terry has seen more than any single person’s share of twisted, deformed and damaged bodies along highways and on the wrong end of guns.
Through it all, he’s relied on a well-worn daily missal that dates back to his days as a student at St. Mary’s School and his unusually strong stomach.
“One of the questions that always comes up is: ‘Did you ever get sick?’” he said. “No, never. I guess I’m just a different sort of cat.”
What many people consider the more gory aspects of the job – whether it be picking up after a high-impact crash or assisting at an autopsy – Terry considers easy compared to having to look into the eyes of a mother and tell her her son is dead.
“That’s the toughest part of the job,” he said. “Most of my guys would rather pick up pieces all over the road than to go talk to a family.”
Terry has continued to work several hours per week as a consultant to his successor, Mike Payne, one of his former assistants. But as that transitional work winds down, he looks forward to what’s ahead.
That includes more time with his wife of 47 years and his son – local attorney Todd Terry and his wife and two children.
But don’t expect him to step away entirely.
“I know there’s at least a couple of funeral homes in the area that could use me.”