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Health secrets from the dead

Allen County Coroner Dr. Jon Brandenberger on what the dead can teach the living

By Monica Hoff

Fort Wayne Reader


Jon Brandenberger’s careers as both a family practice physician and the Allen County Coroner would seem like a dichotomy of sorts. In one career, he’s taking care of the living. In the other, he’s investigating the dead.

But sometimes the two roles connect, which he says has allowed him to become a better physician by utilizing what he’s learned as coroner and vice versa.

“Death is the end of a process,” Brandenberger says. “At the time of death, I’m called to investigate how the person died and by what manner. I enter the scene at the time of death, but I have to ask what process led to the death. As a family doctor, I’m injected into the life as part of that process.”

By seeing the end result of the process of some of his patients, Brandenberger can easily explain to an overweight patient that he just investigated the death of someone just like his patient who died before his or her time because he or she didn’t take care of his or herself, he said.

It’s no longer a matter of just controlling the patient’s blood pressure, he says. It’s saving his life. “It’s helped me realize even more how precious life is, and how real the possibility of a death investigation is in those instances,” he says.

Brandenberger also uses the investigative and forensic techniques he employs as coroner in his family practice. He says he photographs injuries, not necessarily for criminal prosecution, but for photo documentation.

“The major differences between practicing medicine and being coroner is that in medicine, you’re an advocate and you partner with your patient to help them get better,” Brandenberger says. “As an investigator, you’re more adversarial. You never quite trust what people tell you.”

“As a doctor, I always trust what the patient tells me. The patient may tell the nurse he’s here for one thing, but then when I come in the room, he’ll tell me something else. In a death investigation, there may be a criminal act involved and you don’t trust everything they tell you. It’s quite a different perspective.”

Dick Alfeld, Brandenberger’s chief investigator, says Brandenberger’s expertise is invaluable.

“We could not operate as efficiently as we do,” Alfeld says. “If you don’t have a medical doctor as a coroner, you’ve got to confer with doctors who will charge a fee. We’ve always got Jon available to ask medical questions. I talked with him six or seven times yesterday on two particularly difficult cases. “

Alfeld has been with the Allen County Coroner’s office for 12 years. Prior to working for the coroner, he worked at the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office. He also was an officer for 20 years with the Fort Wayne Police Department, with 17 years in homicide.

“Not a week goes by that I don’t have consistent contact with him,” Alfeld says. “He’s taught me patience and how to have a different outlook on things. I’m a cop by trade. I have a jaded eye. We complement each other. I’m always suspicious, and he’s always cautious. He also teaches us all the risk of certain diseases processes.”

Brandenberger first became interested in death investigation when he was a medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine. Dr. Bud Ahlbrand was the Allen County Coroner at the time. Ahlbrand motivated and engaged Brandenberger whenever he spent time with him, he says. When Ahlbrand told Brandenberger he could shadow him, Brandenberger took him up on it, following him on death investigations.

In 1981, Brandenberger began his medical practice which is now First Care Family Physicians. In 1992, Dr. Ray Bates, the coroner, invited Brandenberger to be a deputy in the office. “He knew I was interested in death investigation, and my kids were grown up,” he says.

To be a deputy coroner in Indiana, you must be certified in medical legal death investigation. Brandenberger took extra training at George Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., in 1992. To be certified in family practice, you must take 300 hours of continuing education every six years. Brandenberger typically takes classes in the area of forensics, he said.

Brandenberger served as a deputy coroner until Dr. Philip O’Shaughnessy died in 2001, when he was asked to finish the rest of O’Shaughnessy’s four-year term. Brandenberger was then elected in 2004 to the position. He will be up for reelection in 2008.

“I represent the living and speak for the dead,” he said. “I’m the only person who is constitutionally charged with speaking for the dead person.”

As a family doctor, Brandenberger will sometimes investigate the death of a former patient. He remembers the first homicide where he knew the victim.

He received a report of a dead woman in an upscale Northeast Fort Wayne residence. He heard the victim’s name, but it didn’t immediately register. Then, when he saw her, it did.

“It was a patient that I had seen the week before,” he said. “She had been robbed and beaten. It was the first time I went to the scene of someone I knew. I’ve had several motor vehicle accidents where I’ve known people, a couple of suicides and a couple of SIDS cases. Even when I don’t know them beforehand, it doesn’t take me long after interacting with the family that I feel like I knew them before.”

The Allen County Coroner’s office investigates 400 to 600 deaths a year. Every death, the coroner has to certify the death and determine cause and manner.

Brandenberger doesn’t go to every scene. But he does review reports and photos.

He’s very time sensitive – he has to be as a family physician and with his coroner responsibilities. He said he runs a very close schedule at First Care, and he budgets his time well. His investigators and part-time investigators at the coroner’s office are invaluable, as is his full-time nurses and office staff at First Care.

“It’s not hard to find time because of the help I have,” he said.

Kay Turner is Brandenberger’s RN at First Care. She’s been with him for 23 years.

His work as coroner enables him to see firsthand the toll certain diseases inflict on its victims.

“He is more aware of what’s out there in terms of viruses, so he knows to look for those things in his patients,” Turner said.

Brandenberger also started Allen County Drive Alive (www.allencountydrivealive.org) in 2004 to help reduce the number of teen deaths in car accidents in Allen County.

Brandenberger and his wife, Betty, have two children, Matt, 27, a teacher at Adams Elementary School, and Suzy, 25, a learning coach for mentally challenged children.

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