The easy part of Jeffrey Jentzen's two decades as Milwaukee County medical examiner was the thousands of autopsies. They're about the science, the books, the consultation with colleagues, he said.
"The hard part is bringing it all together, taking the science and applying it to families and the community and trying to use that information to look for opportunities and breakthroughs that you can make contributions to the development of forensic science and improvements," he said.
Jentzen, 53, is leaving next month for the University of Michigan, where he has an appointment as a deputy medical examiner and will conduct research as he aims to develop "a forensic center of excellence." Though it's a return to his home state, he said the decision wasn't easy.
"I consider Milwaukee my home. I've been here for 22 years. I raised my kids here. The only house I ever owned is here," he said. "We love this city and everything that it is. That's going to be the hardest thing to leave."
At Jentzen's recommendation, County Executive Scott Walker has sought the help of the Medical Society of Milwaukee County to select the next medical examiner, much in the same manner that Jentzen, 53, came to the job. One possibility is an assistant Jentzen recruited to Milwaukee more than two years ago, Russell Alexander.
Walker said there are few candidates in such a specialized field but said he hopes to have someone confirmed by the County Board by the end of March.
The busy office does about 1,500 autopsies a year.
A reclassification of the job in October 2004 puts the salary range for the new medical examiner between about $135,000 and $146,000. Jentzen's final salary was nearly $220,000.
Jentzen said his successor has to understand the human side of the job.
Jentzen, the 2008 president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said he stresses the link between the science and what can be learned to improve the communities the examiners serve.
"The challenge is to find a person who can use it and take advantage of that and make a difference," he said.
Is that what he accomplished during his time here?
"I'd like to think so," Jentzen said.
Local, national efforts
Jentzen's nearly 27-page curriculum vitae features numerous academic, administrative and clinical appointments, research grants, contracts and awards, professional memberships, teaching and community service.
But he points to what he calls his "tangible accomplishments."
During the last two decades, he has focused on trends in county deaths involving drugs, firearms, infants and heat. He established a fellowship that trained 15 board-certified forensic pathologists and a partnership that created a national curriculum for death scene investigators. He worked with Stephen Hargartenof the Medical College of Wisconsin to create the firearm injury review system that eventually developed into the National Violent Death Reporting System. He and medical student Sarah Leadley will visit Washington, D.C., next month to present research to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences about using dolls when investigating unexplained infant deaths. Since 2005, Jentzen's office has used dolls in such cases, overcoming investigators' early concerns that it would be too emotional for caregivers or parents.
"People in crisis sometimes lose their ability to understand or make visual, spatial determinations," he said. " By placing a doll there, they are able to re-enact that."
His most memorable cases, he said, were related to Jeffrey Dahmer, the 1995 heat wave and last year's plane crash into Lake Michigan that killed six members of the University of Michigan organ transplant team. All, he said, were disasters that stretched or exceeded the resources of his office.
"I tried to run the office like I owned it," he said. "You have to take ownership. I think it's a calling. It's not a job. If somebody were to come in here and could say, 'It's a job,' you wouldn't be successful. You really have to have a sense of a greater good and public service."