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Medical examiners had no clue about party

July 09, 2006|by DON AINES

HAGERSTOWN

It is a job few physicians seek, but one that Drs. Edward W. Ditto III and Howard N. Weeks have held for more than half a century as the longest-serving deputy medical examiners in Maryland.

At any time, day or night, in any weather, medical examiners can be called away from their homes or practices to investigate deaths by homicide, suicide, accident or mysterious circumstances. Ditto, 81, and Weeks, 80, have been taking on these often unsettling duties in Washington County since 1955.

Both were honored Saturday afternoon with a surprise party at the home of Linda Altizer, one of three forensic investigators in Washington County.

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State Sen. Don Munson attended, along Maryland Chief Medical Examiner Dave Fowler and Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Mary Ripple.

Fowler presented a plaque from his office, and the two men also were presented proclamations from Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the state Senate and the House of Delegates.

"I didn't get into medicine to retire," said Weeks, although both men are scaling back their duties, leaving much of the field work to the three forensic investigators and Dr. Steve Kotch, the other medical examiner in the county.

As family physicians, Weeks said he and Ditto have handled "anything from cradle to grave and a little bit beyond."

There have been three generations of medical examiners in Ditto's family, beginning with his father, Edward W. Ditto Jr., he said, and his son, Allen W. Ditto, served as a deputy medical examiner for about 18 years. Ditto's grandson, Andrew, a second-year medical student at the University of Maryland, could make it four generations someday.

While deaths are what they investigate, Ditto said they also try to help the living.

"Death is always a tragedy, many times unexpected. My experience as a medical examiner can help them in their time of grief," Ditto said. "Usually, families are very grateful."

In cases where parents have been killed, Ditto said his family has kept the children at their home until a family member could care for them.

In Washington County, about 160 cases are investigated by medical examiners and forensic investigators, Weeks said.

"They are two of the best medical examiners in the state ... Dr. Weeks was my family physician for some time," said Ripple, a graduate of Smithsburg High School.

The state's approximately 190 deputy medical examiners and forensic investigators are "our eyes and ears at the scene," helping determine the cause and manner of death and whether a case should be referred to the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore for an autopsy, Ripple said.

About 9,000 deaths are investigated every year, with about 4,000 requiring autopsies, she said.

Weeks recounted memorable cases, including half a dozen air crashes, one in the middle of the Potomac River, another in Hagerstown. Sometimes, they had to go to remote areas to get to the bodies.

"I used to climb all over the place, so did Howard," Ditto said. "One year, we had to ride a snowplow" to a death scene.

The nature of the work means their stories often are punctuated by gruesome details of dismemberment, decomposition and lives prematurely ended.

"We've seen it all, unfortunately," Ditto said.

While forensic investigators can document and investigate deaths, Ditto said only a medical examiner can sign death certificates. He has been trying, unsuccessfully to this point, to recruit local physicians to take on their duties as he and Weeks near the ends of their careers.

On Saturday, however, they received thanks for an often thankless job.

"They've been doing this for 51 years, and they've never really been thanked for it," Altizer said. "It's a tough job."

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