SANTA ANA – The lady in black stares at a nondescript computer set atop a nondescript desk.
Donna Meyers peers from an Orange County coroner’s office file room at bullet-shattered glass used as a training aid. MINDY SCHAUER, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
The wall paint is industrially calming – gray, white, blue. Likewise, the decor is utterly routine: pictures of grown kids and growing grandkids, a few framed images of Laguna Beach that she shot herself.
Her tidy office could be any tidy office. The spreadsheet on her computer screen could be any spreadsheet.
Except it’s not.
The lady in black is looking at numbers that explain in stark detail Orange County’s way of death.
Stabbings. Falls. Car crashes …
Donna Lynn Meyers keeps tabs on all that and more.
… Overdoses. Drownings. Shootings.
Meyers analyzes data for any given day (and month and year) and organizes it in ways that allow others to find patterns about how people in Orange County stop breathing.
Most people spend their lives dodging even a thought about death. But every workday, just as she has for most of her 17 1/2 years as an employee of the Coroner Division of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Meyers immerses herself in the jet-black side of our world.
And she smiles while she does it.
THOUSANDS OF LIVES
In 2012, the latest year for which complete statistics are available, 18,915 deaths were recorded by the Orange County Health Care Agency.
The coroner’s office, which looks into all homicides, suicides and accidents, as well as suspicious and unexplained deaths, investigated about a third of them.
The job of deputy coroners, who roll out to death scenes, and forensic pathologists – the physicians who conduct autopsies – is to determine the identity of the deceased, the medical cause of death, the manner of death, and the date and time of death.
The information they feed into the official records become the grist of what Meyers works with, as she analyzes and extracts statistics that eventually get turned into documents with titles like “Coroner Division Annual Report” and “Child Death Review Team – 5-year Report.”
Most of the time, Meyers does this while sitting behind her desk.
But the work sometimes places her next to decedents, who are stored in a cooler that can hold up to 250 bodies kept at 40 degrees.
Still, the work ambiance, she says, is never unnatural.
“Being exposed to death all day … I don’t really look at it that way,” Meyers says.
The nature of the job for the entire office might foster a stronger-than-expected sense of family, Meyers says.
She recalls what happened when a colleague was hit by a car and had to miss work for an extended period. Coroner employees set up a website for her, and for weeks delivered meals to the woman and her family.
“It was awesome and inspiring to see and to be a part of such a group,” Meyers says.
“We support each other.”
Meyers, who has been in her current job, the blandly titled Research Analyst IV, since 2008, starts her workday at 7:30 a.m.
Sipping on a Dunkin’ Dark coffee she brews at her Aliso Viejo home, she first checks her email. Most days, she finds several requests for data either from the media or someone within the Sheriff’s Department or someone in her office.
After scanning those requests, Meyers prints out an autopsy log to read about the day’s cases.
On average, the Coroner Division performs between four and five autopsies per day. Due to budget cuts, autopsies no longer are performed on weekends and holidays.
The office also investigates about 14 deaths, on average, on any given workday.
Reading the autopsy log each day ushers in a host of feelings for Meyers:
Today’s log includes a 5-year-old victim of a man suspected of driving under the influence – the child’s father.
DUI-related deaths particularly upset Meyers.
“Most of the sympathy and sadness I feel on the job is directed at the innocents who die as a consequence of others’ actions or inaction,” Meyers says.
“I feel anger at the people responsible for all of these lives that have been cut short.”
Meyers is concerned about another trend that has emerged in recent years: the number of people, many young adults, dying from accidental overdoses of prescription and illicit drugs.
In 1999, 21 people died of a mixture of illicit and prescription drugs. In 2012, the total was 77, an increase of 267 percent during a period when the county’s total population grew by about 11 percent.
Fatal overdoses of prescription drugs alone totaled 188 in 2012, up 114 percent from 1999.
“I find the current trend … to be particularly alarming,” Meyers says.
She says her job has caused her to warn her kids about dangers most people don’t know exist or don’t think about much.
She says she probably worries too much about something happening to her children or grandchildren.
“This job has taught me,” Meyers says, “that there is no dignity in death.”
Humor isn’t a job requirement at the coroner’s office.
But it helps.
For example, Meyers has an eraser on her desk in the shape of a skull-and-crossbones.
An eraser in the shape of death itself?
“Yes,” says Meyers, who has large, inquisitive brown eyes – eyes that in any given work week see more real-life descriptions of horror and sadness than most people experience in a lifetime.
“Working for my in-laws prepared me for this,” she adds, recalling her time with their body removal service.
Her dark clothes (today it’s a dark blazer and matching dark slacks) have nothing to do with the nature of her job.
“Black,” she says, “is slimming.”
Meyers’ behind-the-scenes work has made her an invaluable resource for reporters and authorities seeking information on death trends in Orange County, as well as for public agencies whose missions involve protecting the health and welfare of the most vulnerable.
It’s not what she planned. In the late 1970s, when she was a student at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Meyers considered a career in photography or writing.
At community college, she took paralegal classes.
Then, at 21, she married a sheriff’s deputy and started a family. A couple of years later she was working for her in-laws, who ran a body removal and transportation business that contracted with the coroner’s office, and also did business with mortuaries throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Meyers processed death certificates and performed other office work for Meyers Transportation. Several months after the family sold the business in 1996 and the new owners closed it, Meyers volunteered at the coroner’s office.
Soon after that, in December 1996, she landed a clerical job. And soon after that, she became the go-to person for any number of tasks.
It was Meyers who helped pick out furniture, as well as purchase equipment, for the coroner headquarters that opened in March 2004 at the corner of Santa Ana Boulevard and North Shelton Street in Santa Ana.
The $12 million facility is home to a statewide coroner training center that includes eerily detailed “scenario” rooms.
In these two rooms, trainees try to determine the cause and manner of death of two life-like dummies created by The Burman Studio, a Burbank-based makeup-effects shop known for its work on the FX plastic-surgery drama “Nip/Tuck.”
In one such room, Meyers poses next to a bed dominated by the sprawling (and very “dead”) pseudo-corpse nicknamed “Manny.”
He has ligature marks on his neck and bottles of prescription medications next to him.
He has bloody streaks on his white tank top.
His belt is loose.
Still, Meyers points to a small brown mark on Manny’s faux face.
“I think that’s cancerous,” she jokes.
In another room, an extremely decomposed and extremely fake body of a middle-age man lies on a couch, face up. Coroner officials call him “Moe Green.”
Richard Rodriguez, a former forensic tech and deputy coroner and 33-year veteran of the office now in charge of the training center, praises Meyers.
“She’s incredible,” Rodriguez says. “She does a great job for us. She takes on any challenge I give her.”
Lt. Jeff Hallock, spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, agrees. He adds that her work “ultimately impacts the entire county.”
Outside of her normal job, Meyers sits on the multi-agency Orange County Child Death Review Team. The group probes child homicides and unexplained child deaths, and strives to come up with ways to prevent such tragedies.
It’s heartbreaking stuff.
It’s also a reason Meyers views her job as life-affirming rather than bleak.
“Appreciate each day,” says Meyers, who grew up in Lakewood and Westminster.
“The people in your life who you love and cherish shouldn’t have to wonder if you love them. Tell them and tell them often, especially if you can’t see them as much as you’d like.
“You don’t know what tomorrow will bring, or when it’s your time to go.”
Although Meyers says the job isn’t relentlessly depressing, that isn’t the same as saying it doesn’t spark emotion. And sometimes that emotion is sadness.
“I find it difficult to have sympathy (for), or to feel bad about, adults who knowingly do things to themselves and thereby cause their deaths.
“I only feel sympathy for their families.”
Meyers shows a copy of an office newsletter. It’s filled with routine stuff like profiles of new employees, birthday and anniversary announcements, and information about charitable events.
“We’re all normal people here,” Meyers says, smiling warmly.
“Really – we’re normal people.”
By GREG HARDESTY / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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