Ditto family tradition is to serve community

August 12, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

Some children inherit their grandfather's engraved gold pocketwatch or their grandmother's recipe for pasta sauce. In the Ditto family, two sons have inherited the often grim job of following in the footsteps of death.

Since the 1940s, three generations of Dittos have been on police call to determine the cause of death in Washington County unattended deaths, fatal accidents, suicides and homicides.

In the 1980s, Dr. Allen W. Ditto was asked by his father, Dr. Edward W. Ditto III, to become the third man in his family to carry a deputy chief medical examiner's badge.


"I said, 'I have no desire whatsoever to do that. It's not something I want to do at all,'" Allen Ditto recalled, as his father, his arms crossed, chuckled.

"He pulled rank on me and reminded me that he paid for my medical schooling," Allen said. He said that was the only time his father used that leverage.

Allen Ditto, 50, reluctantly accepted his father's offer, but resigned from the part-time position in 2000 because of a growing family practice.

He said when his father asked him to take the job, he had good reason to hesitate.

In the 1960s, when he was a boy, Allen Ditto occasionally came across in the refrigerator specimens from death scenes that were stored there temporarily on their way to the lab.

On one occasion, he passed in the hallway a woman who, without a place to stay after her husband died in an accident, stayed at their home.

Allen Ditto didn't understand the full weight of his father's work until he was a teenager and was asked to go along with his father on calls.

He remembers one of the first such trips: When he was about 13 years old, he spent a rainy afternoon watching his father investigate a fatal car accident on U.S. 40 near Greenbrier State Park. He watched as his father used a piece of cardboard "to scoop up like a spatula, a person's brain."

He threw out his arms to punctuate his words.

"A person's brain," he repeated.

Different strokes

The gore doesn't really bother Edward Ditto III, who said he sees the part-time job as "a challenge."

Ditto, 80, who retired from his family practice in 1999, said he continues to work as one of the four county deputy chief medical examiners. The others are Drs. Howard Weeks, Steve Kotch and Tom Gilbert.

In the early 1940s, Edward Ditto III's father, Dr. Edward W. Ditto Jr., became one of Washington County's first medical examiners after a state committee determined that it no longer wanted to use people who were not medically trained to determine cause of death, he said.

Edward Ditto III's father asked him to help out on the job in the late 1950s. Edward Ditto III and his father were the only two medical examiners in the county when he started. Edward Ditto Jr. gave up the medical examiner's job in the early 1960s. He died in 1982 at the age of 87.

In the early 1950s, Edward Ditto III had some unintended on-the-job training when he was a new doctor training at Allegheny General Hospital's emergency room in Pittsburgh. A coroner called the hospital to say that a man had been killed in a hit-and-run accident outside the city and he was going to send in the body.

Not yet a medical examiner, Edward Ditto offered to check out the man. He was nicely dressed and there "was a little bullet hole behind his ear," Ditto recalled. He called the police department and an officer there said that the man was a member of the mob.

He said he frequently is suspicious about some deaths.

"I'm always bothered about unattended deaths - that they might be a contrived murder," he said.

On the job

Doctors serving as medical examiners get paid about $85 a call. Most calls take a couple of hours to complete. Sometimes they take longer.

"You get involved in every one," Edward Ditto said. He said that he's talked to witnesses and next door neighbors, looked through mail and medicine bottles and called family doctors.

"Three newspapers on the front porch will give you a clue," he said.

Sometimes, the doctors called off afternoons worth of patient appointments to investigate fatalities.

"You get hardly no pay for this," Edward Ditto said. "How did this person die, was it preventable, was it a homicide? It's a community service."

Life and Death

Life is a fragile thing, they agreed, and they have to avoid thinking about their own mortality when dealing with others'.

"If you think about that too much, then you start to get upset," Allen Ditto said.

They said they can't help but get upset when children are victims.

Allen Ditto spoke from experience: One snowy morning in the early 1990s, he was called to the scene of an accident near Smithsburg. A 16-year-old girl had been driving her 12-year-old brother to school when her car slid off the road and hit a tree. The girl was thrown from the car and survived. The boy died.

When he got out of his car and collected his supplies, Allen Ditto said he saw "a blanket with two little sneakers hanging out of it."

"I just went back to my car and cried," he said.

Allen Ditto works as a doctor at Potomac Family Medicine and Edward Ditto volunteers on Fridays at Community Free Clinic, both of which are in Hagerstown.

"It's amazing how quickly you can go from being a vibrant person...," Allen Ditto said.

"To being a dead one," Edward Ditto finished.

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