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“To help families.”

That’s why the New Mexico Office of Medical Investigator do what they do.

Whenever there’s a homicide, suicide or any kind of unattended death, it can feel practically robotic to include a sentence like, “The case is currently being investigated by the Office of Medical Investigator,” or, “Toxicology reports are still pending,” so as a means to learn a little more about what exactly goes on, I visited Albuquerque.

On Sept 27, I noticed as part of the University of New Mexico’s homecoming week, the OMI offered a tour to alumni, aspiring students and anyone willing to learn about medical investigators on a first-hand basis.

Coming in, I went in more as a person than a reporter. Plus, with the OMI being a lab, I wasn’t allowed to take photos or touch things, both of which proved to be challenging. Still, I took plenty of notes and, in doing so, gained a new respect for a department I didn’t exactly know much about coming in.

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For example, the OMI performs about 2,000 autopsies a year, according to one of the office’s employees.

At first thought – it sounds like a striking number, but when consider how every death where a medical professional isn’t around is investigated, it makes sense.

Sometimes, these cases can be attributed to factors like old age, heart disease or other lasting conditions.

Before we could walk through the office, everyone was set up into little sub-groups. Although I went in alone (probably as the only one who had driven three hours through intense rains from Roswell to get there), I was part of “Group 4.”

There was one incredibly clear difference with how this tour began. It started at the women’s restroom.

Of course, it came off as odd, maybe even a tad uncomfortable, but as we wound past the sinks and stalls, metal lockers and shelves with organized sets of scrubs soon revealed themselves. This was no ordinary bathroom.

Towards the end of the locker room, another door stood before us. This was the shortcut to the autopsy room.

A black body bag awaited us on one table, with two people dressed in scrubs standing before it.

You could feel the uneasiness as my group collectively inched their way to the table. The odd, clean scent the room gave off wasn’t unbearable, but it was something I wouldn’t soon forget.

As you would recall from a crime investigations show, metal tables displayed a wide array of tools, even some that appear to be from a home-improvement store. A large, circular lights hung before each examination table.

As the woman in scrubs unzipped the bag, revealing just a dummy, everyone’s distressed soon left.

Simply put, these investigators work their best to explain what happened to a person. More specifically, it’s to determine the cause and manner of death.

The manner of death is the way OMI categorizes the death. For example, there are classifications like natural, accident, suicide, homicide, etc. The cause of death, on the other hand, indicates the exact action, like a gunshot wound.

What these investigators perform often is a gross examination, which is reviewing the body with a naked eye.

Also, everything that comes out during the autopsy, goes right back in. This may be obvious, but I also learned that it may not always go back in the same way.

Overdoses on drugs made for a large portion of what they examine, an employee said.

Another employee gave us statistics. New Mexico’s drug overdose rate is 50 percent higher than the national average. The homicide rate? Thirty-nine percent higher.

To do something like this on an almost daily basis, I assumed one had to be strong-willed.

I asked both employees about when they started, if there was ever a point in their careers where it just got easier.

They both thought about it, and looked to each other.

The woman answered first.

She said some deaths can be harder than others – babies especially, can be difficult.

The other investigator agreed, saying that, while it can be tough, they go through so many.

It was almost like looking at each subject as a number rather than a person made things easier for them. Although it may sound bad, considering what they work with, it made sense.

The examiners told us goodbye as we went to the next station. It seemed like they enjoyed their job and still found ways to have fun.

In what could be one of the darkest jobs, they still found a way to smile.

Another station they had for us was a reconstruction of a suicide scenario. People were allowed to wait outside if they’d prefer.

Past the door was a setup resembling a woman’s home. A rope hung from the center, next to a fallen chair. A suicide scenario.

In that situation, the manner of death is ruled as suicide, and the cause was by hanging. During situations like this, law enforcement contacts the OMI.

In a crime scene, police are in complete control of the scene when they conduct investigations, the body, however, belongs to the OMI.

When they arrive, they document everything they can, looking for intent. They said time an important element.

While they do take photos and examine the body, they also do a good amount of looking around.

Text messages, phone calls and other clues around are also fair game.

The hands of the victim are covered with bags to preserve their fingerprints. As we all know, prints are used to establish a positive identification on someone. However, fingerprints are actually better than DNA. Plus, DNA results can take up to a year.

Another myth the OMI essentially busted was that toxicology reports are by no means immediate. An employee said obtaining that kind of data takes easily six to eight weeks.

It was that point where I went to a far more “normal” area. It was the OMI’s grief service program.

It felt far more child-friendly out of everything I had attended that day, but at the same time, it made my heart sink when I saw the kind of books that would be laid out for children.

“Something Scary Happened To Me,” “Help Me Say Goodbye” and “I Miss You” are just a few examples of the picture books children would turn through as a means to answer the question, “Why?”

I spoke with the OMI’s only clinical counselor, Nancy Mance. Previously, the grief service department had about three or four counselors, but right now, it was just a few interns and Nancy.

An employee said the grief services department at the OMI, simply put, allows people dealing with loss to endure through creativity.

The department offers multiple ways for people to describe how they feel. From journaling, yoga, painting a mask, to what I believe was called the “sand tray.”

Nancy, who primarily provides homicide assistance to survivors, said a wide range of emotions go on the room.

I was told of one situation where a mom had recently lost her 11-year-old son by suicide and felt lost because of it. Through the sand tray method, she was able to use toy figures and other items to tell the story of what her life was like before and after the loss of her child.

I never thought a clock and some dinosaur figurines could be arranged to tell such a difficult story. On a wall nearby, there notes printed and hand-written, describing how Nancy had helped them.

The OMI is an interesting, quite large and diverse office. Although the job is tasking, they’re looking for answers not just to learn, but help families.

Multimedia-Crime reporter Trevier Gonzalez can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.