Travis County unveils larger, high-tech medical examiner’s office

Oct 11, 2017
Dr. Satish Chundru, deputy chief medical examiner, at center, talks with people on a tour Wednesday of the new Travis County medical examiner’s office. The new autopsy suite will allow several doctors to work side by side with ample room.

Forensic investigator Jennifer Giesecke said space is so tight in the old Travis County medical examiner’s office that she must share the room she uses to review skeletal remains with forensic pathologists doing autopsies. That means that if they’re occupying the space, her work has to wait.

The new facility at 7723 Springdale Road in Northeast Austin, which Travis County officials unveiled Wednesday, contains a dedicated room for her work, Giesecke said.

At 53,627 square feet, the new building is almost four times larger than the old facility at 1213 Sabine St. For example, it has nine workstations for autopsies, whereas the old building only contains three.

Officials have not yet set an opening date for the office, which investigates and certifies the cause and manner of death of all sudden, unexpected, violent, suspicious or unnatural deaths in the county. The office also handles autopsies on a contract basis for more than 40 other counties.

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The opening of the new facility will also clear the way for the new Austin-Travis County Sobriety Center to move into the old medical examiner’s office building.

The new building also boasts technological upgrades. It features a computed tomography, or CT, scanner, which officials say makes it one of only a few medical examiner offices in the country to use that advanced imaging technology.

A CT scan is like a more powerful X-ray that takes multiple pictures at different angles to create a 360-degree image of the body, providing much more information to analyze. The old facility only had portable X-ray machines.

The new building also contains more education-oriented spaces, including a teaching autopsy room with technology that allows students to watch procedures. The office offers a one-year fellowship training program, through the University of Texas Medical Branch Office of Graduate Medical Education, in forensic pathology.

Chief Medical Examiner J. Keith Pinckard said at a dedication ceremony that not many jurisdictions in the country ever receive new facilities such as this one.

“This is such an important day for us and for me,” Pinckard said. “It’s certainly the highlight of my career.”

The Travis County Commissioners Court approved funding for the building in March 2015. Commissioner Jeff Travillion, in whose precinct the new building is located, said the project came in about $4 million under the projected $35 million budget.

“We want to make sure that we continue to give the best quality service to the county that we possibly can,” Travillion said. “And we think that this tool will allow us to continue to do so.”

Travillion and Josh Davies, county emergency services executive, said the building was designed with the consideration that families might be visiting under difficult circumstances.

“Not only will this facility provide the modern infrastructure that is required to conduct the scientific medical-legal work of the ME’s Office, (but) it provides a compassionate and comfortable space for friends and family during a highly emotional time,” Davies said.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and others also paid tribute to the late Sarah Scott, former chief administrative officer of the medical examiner’s office, for her contributions.

RELATED: Sarah Scott remembered for tenacity, care at medical examiner’s office

State Sen. Kirk Watson commended the Travis County Commissioners Court for making the building a reality. The facility was one of the Austin Democrat’s “10 Goals in 10 Years” that he called for in September 2011 to improve health care in the Austin area.

“It’s going to be something we’re going to be proud of in this region for years to come,” Watson said.