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July 29, 2014

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Q+A: MICHAEL MURPHY:

Viewers see death through the eyes of a coroner

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Steve Marcus

Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy poses in an autopsy exam room at the coroner’s office Monday, November 28, 2011. The coroner’s office is to be subject of Discovery Channel reality show.

Michael Murphy sees dead people. And, in most cases, he finds out what killed them. There are roughly 14,000 deaths in Clark County every year, and Murphy, the county coroner since 2003, oversees investigations into about 10,000 of them. Soon, his office will be featured in a Discovery series.

Tell us about your upcoming Discovery reality show.

We’re careful not to say “reality show.” I think sometimes when people think of those, they think of “Jersey Shore” and “Fear Factor,” and we’re not that. This is more of a documentary. This would give us a chance for people to see science in real time, as well as the drama that’s involved, having to knock on that door to deliver news to families, which can be very difficult. We want to be able to feature what our people do on a daily basis and how fantastic the work is they do and what it means to people when they do it well. Also, the concept is that we’ll feature one of our unidentified persons at the end of every show.

So what you’re saying is, it’s not like “CSI.”

We have an affiliation with the “CSI” folks. Ted Danson was here about a month ago doing a walk-through and talking to employees. It’s not uncommon to have the show’s writers come in for a day to get a feeling (of) what we do. But it’s still TV drama, and they’re going to ask, “Is it possible someone could die this way?” We say, “Yeah, but it’s also possible a meteor could fall on you, but it’s probably not what’s going to happen.”

How many autopsies does your department perform in a year?

About 1,500. We have five full-time physicians to perform autopsies, and we’re very efficient here. The work of moving the bodies, opening the bodies and removing the organs, that’s done by technicians, leaving the doctors free to keep that case moving. I can’t perform autopsies because I’m not a licensed physician, but I have assisted in a number of them. In some offices, a doctor would be fortunate to have only one or two autopsies a day. Our doctors do four in one day.

How do the causes of death break down in Clark County?

There are 360 suicides, around 200 homicides, 1,500 accidental deaths such as drug overdoses or vehicle deaths, undetermineds are less than 1 percent, and the rest are natural causes. That’s everything from a heart attack to stroke to diabetes, which raises an interesting point. A drug overdose is not considered a natural death, but if you die of alcoholism, that can be considered a natural death. And in some areas of the country, they allow assisted suicide. By our standards here, if someone assisted you, that would be a homicide.

What is the biggest public misconception about what you do?

We don’t get all this work done in 60 minutes and have the answers within moments. Everyone thinks when the autopsy is done, the case is over, but for us, that’s somewhat the beginning, because we then have to look at the toxicology reports, circumstances of death, and everything has to be reviewed with a second physician before it can be signed off. In some instances, it takes us two to three months to get it done. I want to clarify that we try to have that body for only 24-30 hours so families can proceed with whatever grieving and funeral process they want to do.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Knocking on the door, delivering the message. I think you get better at it, but I don’t know that it gets any easier, and I don’t know if you want it to, because if it does, you’ve been doing it too long.

Has being the coroner made you change anything about your lifestyle?

I sold my motorcycle and got a Jet Ski (laughs). I’m starting to understand a few things. One of them is you gotta value relationships with people. Don’t leave people with harsh words, because you may never get a chance to take those back. (Life) isn’t a dress rehearsal — this is it. This is the real thing.

A version of this story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.

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