Rad tech experiences life in a disaster morgue

November 16, 2005

The call comes any time the number of disaster casualties overwhelms local forensic or mortuary resources.

The call comes any time the number of disaster casualties overwhelms local forensic or mortuary resources.

Lalynn Pecha, an MRI technician at Grand View Hospital in Sellersville, PA, was at work when she got the call early in September, just after Hurricane Katrina had slammed into the Gulf Coast. The commander of her Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) was calling. Pecha, who has a masters degree in forensic medicine, was to report to Gulfport, MS, to a temporary morgue set up to identify the dead.

DMORTs are part of the National Disaster Medical System, a section of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Response Division.

Katrina was Pecha's first deployment. Outside the morgue, 22 refrigerated tractor-trailers were parked shoulder to shoulder to store the bodies.

Pecha was fortunate to find a hotel room in Gulfport. Just after the storm, the convoy of trucks meant to store unidentified remains had served as temporary housing for the living.

"We slept inside the trucks brought in to house the bodies," said Richard A. Weems, DDS, a DMORT odontologist and director of clinical operations at the University of Alabama School of Dentistry.

The teams endured spartan conditions, including scant food supplies, no running water or electricity, shortages of fuel, and no communications.

Things had improved when Pecha arrived. Mess tents were available.

"They also had military MREs (meals ready to eat), but I didn't eat those," she said.

Digital imaging is one of the first stops for unidentified remains in the temporary morgues, called Disaster Portable Mortuary Units. FEMA maintains two DPMUs, and both have been in constant use on the Gulf Coast since Katrina made landfall Aug. 29.

DPMUs now include computed radiography as well as digital dental radiography.

"At the hospital, a physician orders imaging studies. But here we routinely shoot the skull, chest, abdomen, pelvis, and long bones," Pecha said.

Usually, technicians work 12-hour shifts for two weeks. Pecha was in Gulfport for three weeks, rotated out for a month, and returned on Nov. 6.

"I had no idea what DMORT would be like, but I like it," she said. "It's interesting, and the camaraderie is great."

Disaster imaging studies are read not by radiologists but by forensic pathologists and anthropologists looking for potential identifiers like previous fractures that can be correlated with prior studies.

If the person had an artificial hip or pacemaker, that can lead to identification because newer devices have serial numbers that can be tracked.

"Digital imaging is speeding up the identification process," said Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D., a Mercyhurst College forensic anthropologist. "We now wirelessly transmit images from station to station inside the morgue."

Digital imaging also enables faster antemortem and postmortem comparison of dental x-rays. During the 1999 Bourbonnais, IL, Amtrak derailment, identification of a victim from Japan was facilitated by Internet transmission of dental radiographs sent from Japan to DMORT odontologists at the crash scene.

After Katrina, however, the comparison process was aggravated by the almost total absence of antemortem dental x-rays, which were missing or destroyed by the storm.

For more online information, refer to Diagnostic Imaging's PACSweb section.