A little boy is walking along a beach where many starfish have been stranded by the tide, certain to perish in the hot sun. The boy observes an old man bending down to carefully pick up the starfish, throwing each one back into the ocean. The boy ponders the futility of the action, given the large amount of starfish, and the reality that the next incoming tide would likely bring them back in again. He approaches the old man. “Why are you trying to save the starfish? You can’t possibly save them all and the tide will only bring more back in. What does it matter?”
The old man slowly turned towards the boy, clasping another starfish. “You’re right. I can’t save them all... but I can save that one.” He gazed into the horizon as he threw the starfish back into the ocean. “It matters to that one.”
The effort did mean something to those he tossed back into the sea of life. We do what we can to make the world better. Our efforts and their outcomes are never perfect or guaranteed, but they are meaningful. We must take action with no attachment to the outcome, but a faith in the inherent goodness of the deed.
Most of my life I have been involved in service to our country or the community. I say this not to toot my own horn, but because much of my life and duties have been public or community service-oriented. I owe this largely to my father. He embodied pastor and author Rick Warren’s adage that “the purpose of influence is to help those who have none.”
One of my projects has been a non-profit that my wife and others founded about fifteen years ago called Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania. The purpose of the organization is to help others help themselves through education. Projects like these plus my work at the Coroner’s office fill most of my waking hours. Even so, sometimes it feels like I am not really making much of a difference. But recently, I was reminded of the power in the meaning of the starfish story. A special starfish resurfaced in the past weeks. His name is Nelson.
Years ago, I was helping to give out scholastic scholarships to Estamos Unidos candidates. One went to a long-term heroin addict who successfully beat his addiction, had gone back to school and was now being awarded our scholarship. He told me the story of how he had been an addict for about fourteen years. He explained that first he blamed the police...then he blamed the dealer.... until finally he blamed himself—Nelson, and was able to take full responsibility for his life and actions. Through introspection of the subconscious triggers that had facilitated his addictive patterns, he broke through what tragically, many, many people cannot. He had tears in his eyes as he told me that he had just bought a home and was on his way to getting his MSW in Social Work so that he could work at a drug-free clinic.
Fast-forward many years later to last month, when I was a keynote speaker at a Central Pennsylvania Addictions Conference. During my presentation, I told the story of Nelson to an audience of about three hundred people. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man gesturing to me, grinning and pointing at his nametag. It was Nelson. I was dumbfounded; I had not seen him in years. Nelson was at the conference representing the Spanish American Civic Association, where he works as a counselor, changing the lives of many who need a guide on the path to recovery and sobriety.
Now, whenever I feel discouraged, I think of Nelson, who is not only my “starfish” but a true star, in the community and beyond. Maybe I couldn’t reach them all, but Nelson made it and now he, in turn, walks along the beach and does what he can to make a difference. Carefully picking up each and every one of those lives, examining them with love.
Never tire of doing good because you never know how many lives you can impact, in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Surrender the outcome of your actions...have faith in the good intention behind the action itself.
Did you ever walk through your house and just out of the corner of your eye something seems out of place? It could be a picture on the wall slightly askew or maybe a chair that’s just a little closer to the fireplace. Your peripheral vision is continually reading patterns in your environment and sends deviations of those patterns to your frontal lobes asking for an explanation. Patterns are what forensic investigation is all about.
Every time I duck under the yellow line of crime scene tape, my senses heighten. I have formats or decision trees I follow for all types of deaths from heart-related natural deaths to brutal homicides. The formats contain patterns and through the comparison of patterns the direction of my investigation starts to take shape.
One of the most instructive testimonies I have ever witnessed was from a great pathologist, Vincent DiMaio. He is truly a leader in modern forensic pathology. In his testimony, he pointed out that yes, he was a trained medical doctor but if you were sick you wouldn’t want him for the cure. Dr. DiMaio’s focus is in describing a disease or a trauma, not treating it. He is also specialized in the recognition of gunshot wounds.
In his testimony, he discussed a gunshot wound to the chest. He explained the body position of the person when he was shot and how far away the gun was from his chest when it went off. He did this through an analysis of gunshot residue on the victim’s chest and an artifact called gunshot tattooing. The tattooing happens when unburnt gun powder marks the skin from its fiery contact. His analysis and description was based on science, meaning that through experimentation he could duplicate the results, thus proving his theory.
In one of the upcoming episodes of season two, I do the same testing as Dr. DiMaio, which is called the white board test. It enables me to approximate the distance of the gun from the subject. I should note that Dr. DiMaio wrote the premier book of the study of gunshot wounds called “Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques.” Forensics owes him a great debt of gratitude.
Looking forward to sharing this case study analysis with you next season. . .so stay tuned for more!
We are currently filming for the second season (!) and my day-to-day now involves a lot of interaction between two teams: my medical legal death investigative team and the production team from Discovery. It struck me the other day how similar the skill sets are that are needed to both tell the story of the deceased, and portray it to a TV audience. Both teams function with a high level of diligence, detail, and dedication.
They also have same ultimate goals:
When I am at a crime scene, I must recognize what is evidence during an investigation. I must communicate with others to tell the whole story. Each team member has his or her own special area of expertise, but also must have knowledge of all the other component and skills needed to tell the whole story. Death investigation is visual, knowledge-based and incorporates critical thinking. Likewise, producing a story about death investigation requires many of the same skill sets and the same type of dedication. Just as I know the field of pathology, but am not a pathologist, so the producers of the show must understand the thinking of the camera crew, the needs of the sound people, and the logistics of getting everyone to do what they do in a coordinated way.
I wanted to shed some light on the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes, because it really is tremendous. Death investigation is complex, as is telling the story about the investigation. First and foremost, there is the need to tell the story in a respectful way to protect the innocent and give multiple viewpoints. It requires researching hundreds of cases and determining which one is a good story, if it is appropriate, and determining whether or not it will provide insight into the death investigation process.
Once the episode is chosen, the data is put into a story form. This is a real talent; being able to interpret the information, process the meaning of each fact, and then sequence the information as it should be revealed in an hour-long episode. The story must also be told in such a way as to hold the interest of the person watching, while at the same time, educating the viewer.
As I often say, being a medical/legal investigator is a calling, not a job. It is also true of those who tell the story of my process. Their life is to bring stories to life. It is all about the story until the final cut is made and then they can breathe. The producers don’t have a nine-to-five occupation; they are busy creating a reality. I admire their dedication just as I admire the work of my deputies, police and forensic scientists.
We can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on.
It was autopsy day at my forensic center. I arrived while it was still dark. These are long days that start early and are intense. It is my job to help with the autopsy but also record and document the findings both in written form and photographically.
As I walked into the operating suite I saw the body of a black male. He was clothed in a body bag and picked up at a hospital after having organ and tissue donation. He caught my attention because I was listening to the news on the way into work and there was noisy and senseless banter on the radio by political pundits. They were arguing about race relations. It was Martin Luther King Day, this time last year, and the debate was a non-debate by two angry individuals wed to their position, not really seeking resolution. As I gazed upon this man I thought, “how tragic.”
You see, the black man before me was almost fifty percent white and the other fifty percent was dark pigmentation. Since he had been an organ tissue donor, he had gone through the process of being a skin donor. This is a process where the outer layer of skin is removed for transplantation on those who need the protective layer because of burns or pathologies such as cancer. It struck me how absurd the perception of skin color has become a source of judgement and conflict. His gift was a prime example of the stupidity of mankind dividing itself by skin color. There is no real skin "color."
Sometimes the best thing when trying to find out someone’s positions on a subject is to go directly to the source. This is what I did when I was asked by my wife to write a speech for her for a Martin Luther King breakfast. My wife is Mexican American and very active in the inner-city charities. I used as my source “A Testament of Hope” which is a compilation of speeches and letter written by Reverend King and edited by James W. Washington. It was a revelatory read for me.
In reading his works from Birmingham prison which he penned in 1967 I found a reverent man, deeply Christian in point of few but open to the opinion and fears of others. He was a man that believed in change through moral example and embraced the work of Gandhi by making change through nonviolence. Reading the book made me realize that much of his message had been distorted by power sources that saw the movement as a solely political movement. In fact, Reverend King wanted to extract the movement from the political to a moral imperative.
The key to his movement was love not hate. He believed that we are all God’s children, created with an innate dignity no matter our station:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well. No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
Reverend King pointed out that man’s dignity came not from his social status but rather from his attitude towards his own self-worth and excellence. All stations in life have dignity.
In Birmingham prison he called on all men and women to action:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.
In the above quote from a letter to clergy he made the case that evil will triumph if good men do nothing. He called on a nation to have a moral examination and change the selfishness and folly of race division and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.
As I looked at the young black white man on the gurney I thought of those who still perpetuate racism on both sides and realized that this was not King’s message but rather a message distorted by political vendors. Individuals and groups that insist to divide us by color and gender take the very opposite position of the man I regard as one of the most honorable and important men of the twentieth century. We should all read or reread his own words. His ultimate goal was a color-blind society. A society based not on melatonin but rather the dignity of each created individual. In his own words:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."…
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
We must stop classifying each other by the superficial and see each other as individuals, simply part of a greater whole.
Read his words, not the comments of others.
Have a blessed day.
The Man at the Door
If your soul had a door
With yourself on the other side
Would you recognize who’s knocking?
Would you open wide?
Would you see a person, with whom you would spend a day,
Or only an intruder, you wish would go away?
Would you want yourself to be your guest?
In the stillness of life, when all is quiet and the day is at an end,
Is the person at the door a stranger or a friend?
Recently, I had the joy of playing Santa for about nine hundred kids, for a non-profit my wife and I helped found called Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania which provides educational scholarships and leadership opportunities for the youth in our community who otherwise don’t have access to appropriate resources or funds. This is my fifteenth year playing Santa Claus.
The organization is totally volunteer-run. The annual Christmas party for the children, called La Fiesta de Niño, started as a sub sandwich sale in the hopes of feeding some people and giving toys away for those who needed a little Christmas cheer. Over the years the project grew beyond what we could ever imagine; there is now entertainment, community-service vendors, and over a thousand gifts are donated and given away to families and children.
La Fiesta de Niño is always the day that Christmas begins for me. It is a day to remember how fortunate I am to have been given so much through my life. I had a stable home, complete with storybook Christmas Eves, tree decorating and Christmas cookies. Toys and gifts abounded and the aroma of food fill every room in the house. I fondly remember those moments. When the kids look into my eyes with such awe, I realize that most of them never will have the Christmas experience I had growing up.
I am in a curious position, being the coroner of Dauphin County. December is busy for me; homicides, drug deaths and accidents always increase over the holidays. Each day I am reminded that as songs of joy and hope play over the radio, and grocery stores and department stores fill up with last minute shoppers, there are others out there just praying for another day of survival.
We must be aware and share the gift of love for those who have never had that storybook Christmas. It is when we give that we realize that this is the greatest gift of all—knowing that we are all brother and sisters.
Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones.
Over many decades, I have trained in the Okinawan form of karate called Isshin-Ryu. I have practiced other styles, but due to my esteemed teacher Robert Hanula, a retired State Police Captain, who I believe to be one of the best Isshin-Ryu instructors in the United States, I now solely practice this style.
There are many reasons for someone to practice the martial arts: health, spirituality and self-defense, to name a few. All Okinawan karate is based on kata. A kata is a preformed battle that teaches, movement, technique and works both sides of the body. Katas can also be done for health. They say that certain katas are good for certain organs of the body. I don’t know of any empirical studies but I can tell you that kata keeps me fit, limber and has brought me back from serious injuries.
Another reason for doing kata is that it gives you an awareness of your body. You can lapse into a state of mind the Japanese call “mushin” or “no mind.” The body flows and calms the spirit. I believe that you also acquire a peace even in times of stress or danger. You become more aware of the potential of danger and less likely to be involved in a dangerous situation because you are aware of your environment.
Finally, the most obvious reason for kata is self-defense. Physical violence is seldom a resolution to a situation but at times it is necessary. The kata in the video is an old bow kata. There is a certain beauty to bow kata and many things can take the place of a bow, for example, you can use a cane, a stick or a shovel. It is a kata for many possible environmental weapons and situations.
I dislike violence but in my study of violence I conclude that you must be aware of your environment and also the darker nature of man.
To be wise, ultimately, is to be safe.
Have a good and safe week.
Since the airing of the show, I am constantly asked by individuals and coworkers (both in jest and all
seriousness), “So, what are the dead saying to you now?”
It is true that my study of death and dying tells me much about how we live and the present state of our culture. Overall my most recent observations tell me that we better listen.
Unlike the TV series, most of my deaths are not homicides, although it is one of the most profound causes. All death investigations start out with the hypothesis of “Homicide.” I must scientifically confirm that theory, or move on to another. Seventy-five percent of most sudden unexplained deaths are natural and relate in some way or another to the heart. There are also accidental deaths, suicides and deaths where the final natural cause must be explored. But the dead tell us much more about our society than just an increase or decrease in violent crime.
For example, for the first time in history, drug overdose is a higher cause of death than automobile accidents.
Think about that.
Over the years we have had to get larger cots to transport bodies, as approximately forty percent of Americans are obese. Young people are now exhibiting pathological conditions once considered conditions of the elderly. Americans are far more sedentary. We sit too much, eat too many process foods, take too many medications and have a drug for every complaint. I would go so far as to say that based on the deaths I have seen, there is a general lack of self-control in our society, which gets blamed on someone or something else and individual self-examination is seldom practiced.
A disciplined life is seen as “less free” but the truth is that a disciplined life is a self-directed freer journey. This is true in so many aspects of our lives. Discipline in personal finance, sexual behavior, honesty towards others, and respect for others leads to the betterment of the whole society. The more individuals moderate their own behavior, the freer the society becomes because government is less necessary. The paradox is that everyone needs to reduce a small part of individual freedom for the larger freedom of the society. People generally don’t like to compromise, but if we are unable to self-regulate, a vacuum is formed, and we look to other powers, like a strong central government, to regulate the masses. Morality is replaced by state control.
So, what are the dead telling me? Quite simply: we need to get back to basics. We must treat each other with honesty and compassion. We need to be responsible for our own bodies, our families, and our communities. We must acknowledge that our self-discipline advances not only our freedom but also everyone else’s.
I remember as a child I went to a school that had the Ten Commandments written in the hallways. Since today this is not permitted in schools, maybe we can at least agree on “The Ten Suggestions,” to help us achieve a moral consensus.
Here are the ones I've come up with and strive to live by:
Contemplate the possibility that you are created for a purpose and that there is more to you than your physical self.
Try not to be fooled by the draw of the material world and realize that we are all mortal. There is a quote by a Zen master Seung Sahn: “Coming empty handed, going empty-handed- that is human.”
Watch what you say and don’t make your tongue an instrument of pain to the hearts of others or a weapon of division. Speak to heal.
Take at least one day off a week to be with those you love and contemplate what is important in life.
Honor those who love and sacrifice for you. It could be your parents or a curious blend of family, stepparents or loving friends.
Don’t take the life of another except in self-defense.
Take marriage and commitment seriously and be honest and true to each other.
Don’t steal from others; not on Wall Street and not on Main Street.
Don’t lie about others: don’t lie in business, don’t lie in politics and don’t lie to your partner.
Stop worrying about what others have or let commercials tell you what you must have to be happy. As per suggestion #2, we are all borrowing everything anyway. Concentrate on loving one another and making the world better off when you are gone.
As we enter the holiday season, relax and enjoy, but also take some time to contemplate the “Ten Suggestions” in your life.
Beyond the grave, the dead continue to teach me how to live. Thank you for allowing me to share these reflections with you.
There I was looking at the blinking cursor on the computer screen. Many are curious as to how I face the various faces of mortality on a regular basis and not get affected in my personal life and philosophy. The truth is I am extremely affected by my service to the dead and the constant reminder that I am just renting time on the globe. I do see life differently than most and I also have my own personal coping mechanisms.
I turned towards the familiar clicking sound on the floor as my dog walked over and looked as studiously at his empty water dish as I did the computer. Occasionally he would look at me and then back his dish. It is a known dog theory that if you look at anything long enough you will get what you want.
With a sigh of exasperation, I went over to his dish, filled it, and replaced it on the stand. My dog’s name is Sherlock. He is a golden doodle although I am not sure he is not a spirit from another realm, placed here by a universal intelligence to keep me sane, allowing me to decompress after another day of death and destruction.
I actually got him with the possibility of being a working cadaver dog but shortly realized it would destroy his gregarious personality. It was soon obvious that he was far more suited as a comfort dog. So many times I would be explaining to families how their loved one died as they were petting or hugging Sherlock. It was as though he knew they need a little therapy and love.
He has turned out to be my constant companion to whom I can relieve my tension and even tell him how interesting or tragic a day had been. It has always been curious to me how dogs have this intimate, familial relationship to man. The science part of me says, “Well of course, they have two sphincters in their rectum so they can be house trained.” That may be one factor but I prefer to think the great reason is a psychological connection. Dogs have a unique capacity of being able to love unconditionally.
He has become so much a part of my life. It reminds me of a poem, Dharma, by Billy Collins, one of America’s greatest poet laureates:
The way the dog trots out the front door