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A Public Death: Small Details Matter to Families in Mourning

A Public Death: Small Details Matter to Families in Mourning

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Harry Taylor, William Heisel, death certificate, cause of death, journalism, heart disease, nursing home

When Harry Taylor died at the age of 82 in a nursing home, the medical examiner in Wayne County, Michigan, understandably thought that his age had finally caught up with him.

The initial death certificate blamed "hypertensive arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease," which means that high blood pressure had hardened his arteries over the years, making him prone to heart failure.

That ruling did not sit well with Taylor's family. They knew that he had been ill, but they also knew that, with the right kind of medical attention, he would probably still be alive.

Robin Erb writes in the Detroit Free Press:

Attorney Randy Wallace, representing the family, theorizes that Taylor fell, dislodging the clamp on a port in his chest, which allowed his heart to pump blood from his body, killing him. But Wallace said the home did not report the circumstances of Taylor's death to the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office. All the examiner, Dr. Leigh Hlavaty, saw when the body was brought in were the remains of an 82-year-old man with complex medical conditions and a history of heart disease. She ruled it a natural death.

So Taylor's family and Wallace filled in the blanks for the medical examiner. They pulled together medical documents and photos from the scene to show the circumstances around Taylor's death. This wasn't just a man with a bad heart. This was a situation primed for a patient to slip, fall, and die. Erb writes:

Though the cause of death remained a heart attack, it was changed from a natural to an accidental death. Kelly Kessler, a spokesman for Toledo-based HCR ManorCare, which owns the home, would not discuss Taylor's case, citing privacy concerns. Ultimately, a jury will decide how much weight to give to the death certificate. But Wallace said the family doesn't "want the last word on their father's death to suggest that this was somehow natural. This was not supposed to happen."

Erb used Taylor's death certificates and others for the excellent series on nursing home deaths – Trust and Neglect. Fortunately for Erb – and for family members with loved ones in these troubled nursing homes – death certificates in Michigan are a matter of public record.

Erb shared with me the revised death certificate for Taylor, which I have posted. As I gather more from around the country, I will post those, too.

It's important to note a few things about this death record, which is similar to other death certificates in other states. The main cause of death is listed in part 36. But the full picture of the death is rounded out immediately below. It says that other "significant conditions" included "chronic renal failure" and "dislodgement of dialysis cap/clamp." It lists the manner of death as "accident." And it says that Taylor was "found on floor with catheter not clamped." At the top of the death certificate, there's a big clue that this death was unusual. It says that the "actual presumed time of death" is "unknown," and later it says that the interval between the cause and the death is also "unknown."

Personal details, such as marital status, career, and the fact that Taylor was a veteran are listed. Parents are listed, as is the person who reported the death, known as the "informant." This is often a loved one who might be contacted. In Taylor's case, it was his daughter Pamela. Michigan also lists the nursing home, which can lead to a helpful staff person that will put you in contact with the family.

For those of you with privacy concerns surrounding the release of death certificates, you'll see that the social security number has been removed.

If you've worked on a story recently that made good use of a death certificate, or if you have had trouble getting access to one, share in the comments below or send me a note at You can follow me on Twitter @wheisel.

Photo credit: Don LaVange via Flickr


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