Cook County morgue gets new cooler, hires workers

CHICAGO – Cook County’s morgue opened the doors of its brand-new $1.4 million cooler to news crews on Thursday – a move designed to send the message that the embarrassing stories of bodies stacked haphazardly and stillborn babies tossed together into boxes in a rundown cooler were a thing of the past.

With television and newspaper cameras in tow, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the gleaming new cooler is one component of a shake-up of the medical examiner’s office she launched in 2012 after national news accounts, complete with photographs, revealed a host of problems, including a disorganized operation, overworked staff and antiquated equipment.

“I’ve seen some of the pictures that were released in the media, and I can tell you that’s not going to happen,” said Dr. Stephen Cina, the chief pathologist who was hired in 2012 after Dr. Nancy Jones retired amid the news reports. “The bodies are going to be safe; they’re going to be single stacked; there will never be two bodies in a rack, (and) there will be no bodies on the floor.”

Further, addressing the reports about the treatment of stillborn babies, Cina made a point of pointing to “stainless steel cubbies” where fetal remains will be stored individually “with dignity and respect” in the new cooler, which replaces a 30-year-old model.

Preckwinkle and Cina touted a host of other improvements at the office, including the hiring of more than 20 investigators and technicians and funding to hire a couple dozen more employees.

They also said the office’s old record-keeping system will soon be replaced by a $900,000 digital case management system that will make it far easier to keep track of the 5,000 cases the office handles and the 3,000 autopsies its pathologists conduct every year.

Preckwinckle and Cina also announced that the office had been awarded provisional accreditation by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Preckwinkle said the accreditation, which most major coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices have but Cook County’s has not had since 2011, “inspires public confidence” as well as increases the credibility of pathologists when they are called to testify during trials.

“And perhaps more importantly, it should give assurance to those whose loved ones pass through the medical examiner’s office that the deceased are treated with dignity, care and respect,” she said.

Officials said the bodies that were taken out during the renovation and stored temporarily in refrigerated trailers would be moved into the new cooler within days.