No one wants to wake up in the morgue

■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE

As many of you know, we had a rather unusual situation at the north end of the island at the end of October, relating to a deceased woman found on the beach. It is always sad when someone passes, so I preface this with an offer of condolences to anyone who knew the woman, 54-year-old Marcella Solomon.

Apparently she was here on vacation and had been here several times before, having declared it as one of her favorite places to be. She was an engineer and had spent a lot of time working with NASA.

In my opinion, 54 isn’t very old. According to people who were on the beach that day, there was no sign of traumatic injury. She was lying on the beach, as if she were just sunning herself … which is exactly what she was doing when she passed away. If I were responding to the beach that day and saw a woman that young, even with potential signs of death present, I would still want a very clear second opinion from someone in the medical field before I said with complete confidence that she was deceased.

The strangest thing about this situation is the fact that Charlotte County Sheriff’s deputies responded before anyone else, immediately cordoned off the scene and wouldn’t allow either one of the two emergency medical service agencies that responded (Charlotte and Lee) to check Ms. Solomon for signs of life. They said she was “obviously dead.”

Obviously dead is an actual term that first responders use when they find a patient who cannot survive their obvious injuries. This would include something like a decapitation or putrefaction (meaning the person had been deceased for quite some time and tissue was breaking down).

I remember my first responder training quite clearly regarding this subject, as it was probably the fact beaten most into our brains. Our protocol was to treat that patient as if they were alive, unless they were “obviously dead.” And obviously dead was only obvious in the most severe of occasions.

Why wouldn’t the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office want to protect themselves from liability? Under normal circumstances, protocol would be for at least one EMS responder to place lead lines on the patient to determine whether there was any heart activity. Witnesses on the beach said that not only did deputies not allow EMS personnel to check the patient in that manner; they blocked any of them from being able to touch her. Their apparent rationale for that move was to keep a potential crime scene intact.

But is it a crime scene if the patient could have possibly been resuscitated? We have several people on this island who have been “brought back from the dead” by paramedics, people who were by all appearances deceased. Some of those patients were quite elderly … much, much older than 54. No matter, our first responders still treated them as if there were a chance to recover them, and that was exactly what happened.

Why not try it with a 54-year-old woman with no obvious signs of trauma? Why not at least let one qualified person in to the crime scene, just to double check?

There are three reports I have been allowed access to regarding this case – the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office preliminary report, the Boca Grande Fire Department report, and the Charlotte County EMS report. Both the Boca Grande Fire Department and Charlotte County EMS reports were very succinct.

Both reports said the same thing: No patient contact made, deputies told them it was an “obviously deceased person.”

While the sheriff’s report does mention the word “lividity,” which is the discoloration that occurs when a person has been deceased for a certain amount of time, no other reason for the assumption this was an “obvious death” was documented. In follow-up phone calls and emails with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office none were given.

If you’ve known anyone on blood thinners, you know how easily they can bruise, and how that bruising can spread to a large area. It is very similar to the bluish-purple color the skin of a deceased person takes on after a few hours.

The CCSO report goes on to say the patient was “blue.” People who have been deprived of oxygen for just a couple of minutes can turn blue, but if resuscitated the patient will no longer be blue.

Witnesses on the beach, though, say they were quite close to Ms. Solomon and could not unequivocally be sure she had passed away. They could not see the signs of death the deputies apparently saw. So this makes the deputies’ call of an “obvious death” not so … obvious.

So unless someone wants to come forth with some other evidence as a reason to declare Ms. Solomon as “obviously dead,” I don’t see it.

According to Pam at the District 22 Medical Examiner’s office (which covers Charlotte County), only medical personnel are allowed to declare a person dead, unless is it is a “decomp.” She said deputies almost always, without fail, call EMS to make that verification unless the body is badly decomposed or injured severely, such as a decapitation.

What’s even stranger is that the CCSO report is very vague about who called this in to 911. They clearly state the names of each person in law enforcement who responded, but only identify other responders as “EMS.” They say Lee County EMS left not long after getting there, but don’t say anything about EMS examining the patient. They say someone who was fishing saw her lying by the dunes, and after about an hour he called out to her to see if she was all right because she hadn’t moved. She did not respond. The report states he went back to fishing for about another hour or so, finished fishing, packed his gear and started back to his residence. He again noticed she had not moved, then approached. He said he noticed she was blue, and there were signs of lividity. He then made his way up to locate someone who knew the deceased.

However, when first responders got there the only person on the beach other than Ms. Solomon was her boyfriend. No mention was made to anyone about anyone else calling it in.

So it gets curiouser and curiouser. I spoke with Major Kenville at the CCSO, and he said it can be common for a deputy to call a death at the scene. But when I spoke with Katie Heck, a public information officer for the CCSO, she clarified that it was Lee County EMS who called the death.

They did not. The Boca Grande Fire Department clarified that in their report.

Katie also said “When law enforcement is able to determine that a person is deceased it is common to not have EMS disturb the body in case there is evidence that needs to be preserved.”

This goes very much against what the medical examiner’s office confirmed, as this patient’s cause of death was definitely not clear at the scene. Again I ask, would it be a crime scene if there was a chance Ms. Solomon could have been resuscitated?

We will never know the answer to that. I could speculate that the deputies were correct in their laymen’s diagnosis, but who wants to speculate in the case of the death of a relatively young woman, especially when EMS personnel from two different agencies are standing right there? What’s worse, what will happen next time if the person is older or, for that matter, a young child? Would you want a deputy to make the determination your child or grandmother was dead prior to any attempt at resuscitation?

We will let you know when the autopsy results come back. It will be awhile. Just keep this in mind, though: If you aren’t feeling well, it might be best to stay put in Lee County.

Marcy Shortuse is the editor of the Boca Beacon. She can be reached at mshortuse@bocabeacon.com.