Using Radiography, X-Rays and CT to Identify Victims

Radiograph of motorcycle victim

Radiograph of motorcycle victim

The image above is a radiograph of a human head, the surviving victim of a motorcycle accident. This patient was not using a helmet, and the crash caused extensive facial and mandibular fractures. The vertex (top) and posterior skull are not damaged; these portions were excluded in the initial scan and appear as though they are missing on the 3D rendering.

The tubes that you see running into the patient’s mouth are an endotracheal tube and a orogastric suction tube. When you visit Surfactant’s Flickr images, you can see the rotation of the skull in a video and view the patient’s physical damage closely. In this case, you might notice that the patient is missing most of his upper teeth. If this victim had died and if all teeth were missing, it would be difficult to use forensic dentistry to identify the body. Forensic dentistry involves the identification of people based on their dental records, mainly available as radiograph images.

If teeth were found near the body, forensic dentists (or, odontologists) could try to identify the age of the individual or try to match the teeth in ante-mortem (prior to death) photographs. This age discrimination is determined by tooth wear and by analyzing cementum, the mineralized tissue that lines the surface of tooth roots and that exhibits annual patterns of decomposition. These marks bear a resemblance to the annual growth rings in trees.

Many technologies are used today to help identify human remains. X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) and radiography can be used, and have been used in situations such as the one caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Individuals who know how to use these technologies often can volunteer to help with mass fatality incidents such as Katrina through DMORT, or Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams.

DMORT is a federal-level response team designed to provide mortuary assistance in the case of a mass fatality incident or cemetery related incident. They work under the local jurisdictional authorities such as Coroner/Medical Examiners, Law Enforcement and Emergency Managers. During Katrina, teams that were called into play included morticians, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, anthropologists, odontologists, dental assistants, photographers, police, DNA, X-ray, evidence, fingerprint, mental health and computer specialists, and others such as heavy equipment operators. According to the Health and Human Services site:

The DMORTs are directed by ASPR/OPEO/NDMS. Teams are composed of funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, medical records technicians and transcribers, finger print specialists, forensic odontologists, dental assistants, x-ray technicians, mental health specialists, computer professionals, administrative support staff, and security and investigative personnel.

The Department of Health & Human Services, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, in support of the NDMS DMORT program, maintains three (3) Disaster Portable Morgue Units (DPMUs). These DPMUs are staged at locations on the East and West coast for immediate deployment in support of DMORT operations. The DPMU is a depository of equipment and supplies for deployment to a disaster site. It contains a complete morgue with designated workstations for each processing element and prepackaged equipment and supplies.

ASPR is the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, OPEO is the Office of Preparedness and Emergency Operations and NDMS is the National Disaster Medical System. In addition to DMORT, this group also operates DMAT, the Disaster medical Assistant Teams and NVRT, or National Veterinary Response Team. In all cases, when a person wants to become involved with any given group, he or she must refer to NDMS recruitment information.

In most cases, individuals with a background in the medical and public health services, emergency management, or forensic sciences, etc. could fill vacant positions on the various response teams within NDMS. And, as a odontologist, you can only hope the corpses have teeth.

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