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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 22, 2009
For Albany County coroner
By Anne Hayden
Deborah Busch, a Knox resident and registered nurse with a master’s of science degree in nursing, is making her first run for Albany County coroner. She is up against incumbent Paul Marra, a funeral director from Cohoes, who is seeking his sixth-term in the position.
Albany County does not employ a medical examiner; it has four elected coroners.
One of the primary responsibilities of the elected coroners is deciding whether an individual should be resuscitated or pronounced dead.
Other responsibilities of the coroner include investigating the cause of death, and preparing a deposition on exactly how the deceased was found at the scene, anatomical landmarks, and any mitigating factors in the declaration of death. The coroner must present the deposition to the pathologists performing the autopsy.
Deborah Busch, a Republican, who has been in the nursing field since she was 17 years old, said she believes that an elected coroner should have medical education and training. Busch is also running on the Conservative and Independence lines.
Busch was part of the Schoharies Board of Cooperative Education Services nursing program while she attended Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School, and she received her certification as a licensed practical nurse at age 17. After graduating from college, she became a funeral director in Buffalo, a position that she held for five years.
During that time, she worked with the Erie County Morgue Wagon, and was responsible for the removal of deceased victims of homicide, suicide, indigents, and all suspect deaths, she said.
After starting a family, Busch decided to go back to school to become a registered nurse, a certification she received from Maria College. She later went back to school and got her master’s of science degree in nursing from Sage Colleges. For 20 years, Busch has worked in the critical care unit of a hospital, as well as with the Center for Donation and Transplant.
Busch said that, with her combination of a forensic background and her advanced nursing degree, she has the right experience for the position of county coroner.
“I was shocked when I learned that the coroner’s office didn’t understand a lot of what I was saying when I would report deaths,” said Busch, when asked what prompted her to run for the position. “I wondered how you can become a coroner if you don’t have basic medical knowledge,” she said.
Busch said she thinks only a healthcare professional should be able to decide if a person is dead, because there are other health crises that can mimic death.
Busch cited a 1994 incident in which an 86-year-old woman was pronounced dead by a former Albany County coroner; the women later woke up in the morgue, in a body bag, and doctors determined her hypothermic condition had mimicked death.
“You have to wonder how many individuals were denied proper resuscitation,” said Busch.
Busch said a medical background is also important for a coroner, in the event that a mass infection causing casualties were to occur.
“If you are responding to a death caused by infectious disease, you need to know how to contain it. County coroners are public health officials,” she said.
Another concern Busch has is response time, not only to the scene of death, but in the release of public information.
“As a public servant, you need to be available to speak out on issues that could affect the community. You must be available to the media. The public should have access to a loved one, and a coroner must expedite all paperwork,” Busch said. She said that there is currently a huge delay in getting death out certificates.
Although Busch would promote the prompt release of information, she said she would also preserve the integrity of justice, by sequestering information that could affect litigation.
“I don’t believe I received endorsements from the Republican, Conservative, and Independence parties because I belong to a political stronghold,” concluded Busch. “I believe I received endorsements because I have a passion for seeing that the interests of individuals are served.”
Paul Marra, the Democratic incumbent for Albany County Coroner, is seeking his sixth four-year term in the position. He has served in the role since 1988.
Marra is a licensed New York State funeral director, and has been the owner and operator of the Marra Funeral Home in Cohoes for 31 years. He said that when he began working at the funeral home in 1978, his uncle was a county coroner, and he went on calls with him.
“I became interested in it and started working with forensic pathologists. I gained a terrific amount of forensic knowledge,” said Marra. Although he does not have a medical education background, Marra said he has attended over 360 hours of medical legal death investigative training.
“I am the only candidate who has any training in that field. I have gone ahead and taken courses to better myself. It is not required,” he said.
Marra said Albany County coroners are called to investigate unintended deaths, deaths of individuals who have been in the hospital for less than 24 hours, and they are authorized to investigate any death. They determine medical history, investigate the scene, and make sure the scene corresponds with medical findings, he said.
As a funeral director, Marra said he is trained to recognize the signs of death, and has been personally in charge of over 4,000 “death occasions”, and attended over 1,000 autopsies. Albany County does not have a medical examiner, he said. Instead, there are three pathologists available to perform autopsies, while coroners do the scene investigation.
Marra said the 1994 incident in which a former Albany County coroner pronounced an 86-year-old woman dead, when she was actually suffering from hypothermia, resulted in a policy requiring a portable electrocardiogram (EKG) machine to be used on every person. He said paramedics are the first responders, and, if the portable EKG reveals a flat line, the coroner will be called in to officially pronounce the person dead.
Additionally, said Marra, state law requires that the coroner work in conjunction with a coroner’s physician in every case. There are five coroner’s physicians available in the county, he said.
Marra said he had trained at two mass fatality incident response courses, and attended pandemic flu training. He said he had learned how to respond to a mass fatality incident, and how to prepare the county in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak.
As far as a coroner’s accessibility to the media, Marra said that, if someone calls him asking for information, he gives as much as he can right away without releasing anything that could jeopardize an investigation.
Although the position of county coroner is part-time, Marra said he spends an average of 37 hours per week on call.
“I’m self-employed, which allows me to devote full-time hours to a part-time job. I don’t know how someone working another job would be able to do that,” Marra said. He said he takes calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when he is not on duty.
“In my field, I know what federal, state, and local agencies a family may need to contact, and I could advise in that way. I have developed the skills to console. The most important thing I bring to the position is my experience,” Marra concluded.