Dealing with big corpses
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:18 a.m.
ORLANDO - Americans are getting fatter. So are dead Americans.
And if your beefy body passes through the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office on the way to the grave, rest assured. They have an autopsy table expansive enough for the heftiest among us.
At 3 1/2 feet wide and 7 feet tall, the table is 40 percent roomier than standard carts. Stout, reinforced legs support a tray of heavy-gauge stainless steel, buffed to a satin finish.
Weight load: 1,000 pounds.
As it is with stadium seats and amusement-park rides, so it is with autopsy tables and morgue drawers, cadaver carts and other equipment used to hoist, lift and carry the dead. Americans are growing too large to fit, so autopsy equipment is getting bigger.
The percentage of obese Americans has jumped from 15 percent about 30 years ago to about 33 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-three percent of Floridians are obese, according to a 2006 study.
A 300-pound body is wheeled through the doors of the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office about once a week, said Steve Hanson, the office's chief investigator. He knows. He has tried to make it work.
"We've run into people ... they've kind of spread out and completely filled the table," Hanson said. "We had people hanging over the sides."
As the obesity epidemic has grown, so has the need for bariatric equipment, or medical devices for the obese, industry experts say. By 2010, the U.S. market could yield more than $1 billion in revenue, according to market analysts Frost & Sullivan.
Dead bodies need the equipment just as the living do, said Dr. Joseph Prahlow, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.
"The problem spills over, if you will, to the morgue and death industry as well," he said.
Dead weight is the morgue's awkward logistical challenge.
Some bodies are too large to slip into the drawers of morgue refrigerators. They tip over standard-sized cadaver carts. Their weight tests the physical strength and stamina of the people who must lift and flip a corpse to conduct a thorough exam.
Workers at Palm Beach County's offices soap the carts to ease moving bigger corpses on and off them, said Chief Medical Examiner Michael Bell. Then they spend an hour or more hovering over a body during an autopsy.
Manufacturers are rushing to fill the need.
Mopec Inc., makers of the Elevating Bariatric Autopsy Table ("The width measures a full 40" wide!" according to the catalog), sells about 100 bariatric autopsy tables a year, said Rick Bell, co-owner of the company.
Standard weight loads for autopsy carts used to be 300 or 400 pounds, Bell said. Now customers want tables that can carry 1,000 pounds.
Because many bodies are too big for morgue drawers, the company now manufactures them in wider sizes.
Special mechanical lifts that hoist bodies that were once typically built to hold 500 pounds are now designed to hold 750 pounds.
Hospitals now design their morgues with obese children in mind, Bell said.
Equipment for the obese dead is pricey. Larger tables come at a 30 percent to 40 percent premium because they take more materials.
The Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office's bariatric autopsy table cost $3,367. It also bought a specialized hydraulic table to help with heavier bodies. A foot pump similar to one on a beauty-salon chair raises and lowers the table's telescoping legs so technicians can roll bodies onto the new autopsy table from above instead of lifting them. It cost $3,544.
Agencies with less cash have resorted to low-tech solutions. Prahlow, of the National Medical Examiners Association said he once worked at an office that made an impromptu bariatric table with a piece of plywood rigged with casters.
The "table" top lifted bodies only inches from the floor.
"We called them 'floor-topsies,' " Prahlow said.
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