WSAZ Investigates | Waiting to Live

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Suddenly losing a loved one is heartbreaking, and knowing why they died can often times bring a family closure.

It can also reveal an underlying health issue that could potentially save another family member's life.

That is what Kristy and Ryan Ray were hoping to find out after their 8-year-old son Caleb suddenly died while playing soccer in April of 2018.

"We are trying to heal," said Kristy. "Our daughter Maggie -- she even asks us what happened. She has a little fear herself."

Maggie's fear, much like Kristy and Ryan's, is that what happened to her big brother could happen to her.

"We live in fear. Every time she runs, every time she swims. We have to have answers."

Those answers can only come from an autopsy report. The Rays waited a year for that report and made several calls to the West Virginia Medical Examiner's Office. They say they were either not given an answer, or told that the results were "pending."

The Rays say, without those results, doctors tell them it would be more difficult to test Maggie for any similar health issues because the list of possible concerns are endless.

Kristy reached out to WSAZ's Chad Hedrick, asking for help in getting those results, or at least finding out what was taking so long.

While talking to officials with the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, they revealed there is a backlog putting a halt on getting results out in a timely manner.

"The cases have essentially doubled since 2012," said Dr. Cathy Slemp, the commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health. "That's predominately driven by the opioid epidemic."

Slemp says roughly 70 percent of their cases are linked to the drug crisis. Slemp adds the backup is making families wait about six to seven months, and sometimes longer, for final results. The national standard is about 90 days.

"For families, I understand the need for answers," said Slemp. "We all want those and we want to make sure we get the best answers we can."

For the Rays, they think the office should prioritize cases. Slemp says they are processed in the order they come in. The office has been understaffed and underfunded, which doesn't help.

"The excuse we are backlogged because of drug overdoses and they're short staffed... then take your smaller staff and take your work load and prioritize," suggested Kristy. "Who needs out of here first? Who is going to affect other people?"

Almost a week after WSAZ interviewed Slemp, the office got the Rays the results they had been looking for. The Rays say they have been overcome with emotion, and feel like they now have closure.

When it comes to addressing the staffing, Slemp is hopeful newly approved funding from the state will help. She says the office has a hard time recruiting forensic pathologists to process the autopsies because the salaries are not competitive with other states. She says only three of the state's six positions were filled. She hopes the funding will help attract more applicants.

But it will still be an uphill climb. Slemp says there are roughly 500 forensic pathologist positions nationwide. There are 90 vacancies and about 40 pathologists nearing retirement age, but only around 25 students graduate with a degree each year.

WSAZ reached out to Kentucky and Ohio health officials who say they too struggle with recruitment. However, they are still able to get final results to families within about eight to 10 weeks.