The death on July 13 of B.C. resident and TV star Cory Monteith in a Vancouver hotel room took most people by surprise, even those aware of the Glee cast member’s alleged past problems with drugs.
The immediate barrage of media attention left the Vancouver Police Department and the B.C. Coroners Service in a delicate situation.
They had to balance the sensitive nature of the event and the privacy concerns of Monteith’s friends and loved ones with the rapidly increasing demands for information about the cause of death for the popular public figure.
They could have pulled in their collective heads, weathered the storm, and allowed their investigations to proceed at their usual pace. In a case of sudden death where foul play is not apparent, at least initially, the first concern would be to determine whether or not the fatality was the result of an accident.
This would, obviously, be of immense import to Monteith’s family.
It appears the coroners service and the cops decided to try to satisfy all parties’ interests, though, perhaps not relishing the thought of nonstop media and fan inquiries and public speculation for weeks on end.
So B.C. Coroners Service spokesperson Barb McLintock announced on Monday (July 15) that they would put Monteith’s case at “the top of the list” to get answers.
As CBC News reported online, McLintock promised to maintain “the integrity of the investigation and the same tests and the same thoroughness we do for anyone else”. The results were expected to take several days.
But as of Tuesday, July 16, less than 24 hours after the autopsy and sampling for the toxicology screening, they announced, rather astoundingly, the results of those tests.
According to a coroners service release, Monteith, 31, had “died of a mixed-drug toxicity, involving heroin and alcohol”.
The coroners-service investigation continues, and it said in the release that it would “not be providing any further details or responding to inquiries concerning the circumstances of Mr. Monteith’s death until the full investigation has concluded".
Fair enough. I didn’t want to know any more details about his death, the circumstances surrounding his death, people who may or may not have been involved, et cetera.
I just wanted to know how their testing could have been completed satisfactorily in less than one day. I wanted to know how confident they were with the results.
In researching toxicological screening online, I came across an article on a medical-information website, webMD, wherein Barbarajean Magnani, the chair of the Toxicology Resource Committee for the College of American Pathologists, had some interesting things to say about such testing.
Two sentences jumped out when she discussed post-mortem sampling and testing.
“Four to six weeks is pretty standard,” she said of the wait for answers. And of the reason for such a wait: “Each one [case] should be handled thoroughly, whether they are a celebrity or not.”
One can only hope that by rushing the toxicological analysis, the B.C. Coroners Service hasn’t made any errors that will come back to haunt them, not to mention Monteith’s family, friends, coworkers, and fans.
Such tests often take weeks, sometimes many weeks, to complete. There are different reasons for this, including: wait lists; centralized testing facilities; different tests of varying complexity; a need to determine whether or not a number of substances should be tested for and how, if found, such substances, illicit or not, might have synergistically reacted and perhaps contributed to a fatal outcome.
Sometimes toxicology screens involve an immunoassay test or mass spectrometry. If drugs and/or alcohol are detected, the amounts of these need to be determined, as well as whether the dosage ingested (or injected) was therapeutic, toxic, or lethal.
I called McLintock, a former freelance writer and political reporter for the Province newspaper, and she answered her own phone (which was, in itself, a bit surprising if you happen to be a journalist and have dealt with any provincial-government institutions during the past 12 years).
After I confirmed with her that the autopsy had been conducted Monday, I asked how she would answer criticism that perhaps the coroners service had “hurried” the tests too much.
She quickly muttered, “We’re not answering any more questions about that,” said she was “in a hurry”, and hung up.
Never mind that they hadn’t answered any “questions about that”, period. If there was even a chance that hurried testing might miss something important, might mean that a mistake could be made regarding the cause of death, wouldn't that be cause for restraint? If an underlying physical problem might have contributed to the tragic death and gone undetected, wouldn’t that have been reason enough to take a couple of extra days, much less the “pretty standard” four to six weeks Magnani referenced, to make sure?
Instead of blitzing through the complicated screening in less than a single day just to silence the phone calls from TMZ, People magazine, and Entertainment Tonight?
Monteith’s loved ones were, undoubtedly, anxious, if not desperate, for answers.
But I’m sure they would have understood if they had been asked to wait patiently a little while longer.
And let’s hope the B.C. Coroners Service doesn’t have huge cause to regret such unusual, and intemperate, departure from standard procedure.