KITTITAS COUNTY, Wash. -
Kittitas County Coroner's Office is continuing its second year of visiting local schools to recruit kids in a career of forensic sciences.
Coroner Nick Henderson tells me the reason for the visits is simple: not enough forensic pathologists to perform autopsies in the United States.
Henderson says the visits to the school are paying off.
"Last year we were goofing off, signed up late for Central Washington University's Career Fair and got a bad spot," says Henderson. "Even with a bad spot kids still found us. We'll get about 12 or 13 applicants off every job fair."
Henderson tells me the office doesn't give away prizes of any kind at the career fairs and students ask a lot of questions and become interested when they learn about the career.
Former Coroner's Office Intern Mina Kover met Henderson at a career fair and learned about the internship.
Kover says she was not sure if she wanted to apply and when she was accepted into the program, she says she was nervous.
Kover says those nerves went away when she watched her first autopsy.
"It is gross definitely the first time," says Kover. "It's also really cool to see all those parts of the body that you don't see because we only see our skin. It's just so crazy to take out someone's organs but you get to hold a heart or a liver. It's just really cool. We wouldn't normally be able to do that."
Kover and Henderson tell me the job is not always glamorous like NCIS, but it is rewarding.
Henderson tells me the best part of the job is the clarity autopsies provide families, law enforcement and insurance companies.
Kover says she has always had a passion for studying human bones and the information that can be found about a person from bone data.
Kover says she applied took the internship to help her career and to provide the same care she saw her grandfather receive when he died of dementia in 2020.
Kover said it all really clicked for her when she was present for a call to the coroner's office about a hunter who collapsed on Manastash Ridge.
"The first thing his wife said when we got his body is 'Where's my husband? What's wrong with him?'" says Kover. "At the time we didn't have any answers for her, but that's why autopsies are so important. They provide closure for families."
Kover says providing that closure was a familiar feeling.
"It reminds me of when my grandpa died. They gave him the dignity even after he was no longer living," says Kover. "That's what I want to do and what I think we all should do."
Kover says the job taught her a lot and helped her continue studying to be a forensic anthropologist but says she would consider being a forensic pathologist.
Henderson says the biggest challenge for getting and retaining forensic pathologists is the pay. Henderson tells me forensic pathologists are the lowest paid in the medical field.
"There are roughly 500 forensic pathologists in the country, and I think only 17 graduated last year," says Henderson. "The student debt plus wages for a pathologist in a rural area make it hard to bring new people into this career."
Henderson tells me the office tries to sweeten the deal for students by informing them Seattle is only an hour away, so big city options are nearby, and Ellensburg is at the intersection of the state where multiple highways intersect.
Henderson tells me it is not all in the marketing to get students interested in this career, but it is also in the state legislature.
"We're working with state legislature to see if they can come up with some forgiving student loan programs," says Henderson. "They have those for regular medical family practitioners to serve in underserved areas."
Senate Bill 5523 aims to tackle the forensic pathologist shortage in Washington State by alleviating student debt and market the state to potential forensic pathologists.
The bill is in the House right now and if it becomes law, Henderson says many forensic pathologists in rural communities could be getting a student loan relief.
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