Jacobson hopes to restore trust in office
Death no mystery to county coroner
By JOSHUA WOLFSON – Star-Tribune staff writer | Posted: Saturday, November 7, 2009 12:00 am
Connie Jacobson has been asking questions about death for almost her entire life.
Growing up, she’d quiz her father about his work embalming bodies at a funeral home. She wanted to know things, like where all the blood went.
“It wasn’t dinner table conversation, but I had curiosities,” she said. “I had questions when I got old enough to know what he was doing.
“Her interest would eventually lead to the top job in the Natrona County Coroner’s Office. Death, she says, has never been a mystery to her.
“I guess what intrigues me is my job of finding out why that patient died, or that person died, and putting all of those investigative pieces together,” she said.
As coroner, Jacobson is responsible for investigating accidental, violent or unattended deaths, as well as suicides. The 57-year-old assumed the job in September, replacing Dr. James Thorpen, who retired after nearly three decades in office.
Jacobson took the job in the midst of the criminal prosecution against former chief deputy coroner Gary Hazen, who has admitted to taking prescription drugs from the office for his own use. Jacobson, who plans to seek re-election next year, said she has taken steps to prevent a similar situation and restore the public’s faith in the office.
“Because of this last year’s history … my concern and my focus is to regain trust and credibility with the community, and to be more open with the community,” she said.
Jacobson came to the coroner’s office after more than two decades as a nurse. She most recently served as Wyoming Medical Center’s trauma nurse coordinator.
Her speciality is forensic nursing, in which nurses, in addition to caring for patients, also collect evidence and serve as liaisons between the medical and law enforcement communities. She feels her experience — including training in criminology — helped prepare her for the coroner’s job.
“My nursing background … is probably the best background to have as a coroner, if you are not a physician,” she said.
Compared with other specialties, the field of forensic nursing is relatively new, only gaining official recognition from the American Nurses Association in 1995. At one time, Jacobson said, she was the only forensic nurse in Wyoming. Even now, there are only a handful, with most specializing as sexual assault examiners.
“I kind of felt like the Lone Ranger, striking out, doing things that other nurses aren’t usually or normally doing,” she said.
While finishing up her education for forensic nursing, Jacobson had her first experience with the Natrona County Coroner’s Office, where she served as an intern. When the internship ended, she told Thorpen she’d like to work for him if a position every opened up.
“So he hired me,” she said.
From 1998 to 2001, Jacobson worked as a coroner’s investigator when she wasn’t at her job in the Wyoming Medical Center emergency room.
“There is nothing really glamorous about the job,” she said. “It’s man’s work. You do a lot of heavy lifting, hauling around. You are out in the weather.”
Jacobson resigned from the hospital this summer and sought the coroner’s office after Thorpen submitted his formal letter of resignation.
The Natrona County Commission selected her as coroner in August after interviewing her and one other candidate. Thorpen lauded the selection, calling Jacobson a “top-drawer person.”
New leadership has led to several changes at the coroner’s office. Because she’s not a physician like Thorpen, Jacobson has to rely on doctors in Montana, Colorado and Nebraska to perform autopsies.
Another notable difference, especially in light of Hazen’s crime, is the new prohibition against investigators collecting drugs from death scenes. That task is now left to the police, who are also responsible for storing the evidence and destroying drugs when they are no longer needed.
“We count, log and store all medicines over there,” Jacobson explained.
Jacobson also plans to increase communication between her office and the public.
“There are no secrets here,” she said. “There is nothing in our process that we can’t share with anybody else, as long as it is not still under investigation.”
That increased communication extends to the families of those who have died. Jacobson wants her office to spend more time with family members, because she believes they can help investigators take better care of the deceased.
“Families need to be involved in what we do and help us make decisions and feel a little bit of control… ,” she said. “We don’t stop taking care of people just because they died.”
Reach reporter Joshua Wolfson at (307) 266-0582 or at email@example.com. Visit tribtown.trib.com/JoshuaWolfson/blog to read his blog.