Rodney Nay
Rodney Nay
An ambulance is dispatched to the scene, and first-responders find someone at the location has died. A text is sent to Jefferson County Coroner Rodney Nay, letting him know his services are needed.

Nay won’t know the circumstances of the death until he arrives. Sometimes, he says, he is unprepared for what he is about to see.

Sometimes, Nay is acquainted with or knows personally those who live at the address he is called to. Inside, he will be led to a suicide, murder, accident or a death from natural causes. 

But he has seen a large number of suicides and drug overdoses since taking office in January.

According to the Indiana Department of Health, the suicide death rate in Jefferson County in 2016 was 33.9 (per 100,000 population) – nearly triple the national rate of 12.9 and more than double the state rate of 14.3.

While the state and national rates have stayed steady since 2013, Jefferson County’s rate has tripled from 11.2 that year. 

From January to August in 2014, 1,894 of the 2,430 KDH emergency room admissions were for drug overdose, abuse or dependency. That number rose to 2,254 in 2015, according to KDH records. (The total number of admissions is not available for that year.) 

In March, Carri Dirksen told people attending the first meeting of the Healthy Communities Initiative that there had been 30 confirmed cases of suicide from August 2016 through February 2017. That number has risen.

And it could be even higher than that, Nay said, stating that many deaths caused by drug overdoses may not have been accidental. In those situations, however, there is not enough evidence to suggest the deaths were intentional. 

For example, 14 of the last 29 toxicology reports for cases in the county came back positive for illegal drugs or alcohol. In one instance, the deceased tested had ingested 80 times more of the illegal drug used than would be a considered a typical amount for a person who regularly uses the drug.  

“We’ve had so many accidental overdoses, and you don’t know with those,” Nay said. “Some could be choosing, so we look at those as a possible suicide because they have taken triple the amount that it would take to kill you. I had one case [where the individual] had taken five times what it would take to kill you.

“People who have been doing drugs for a long time know how (much they can take). Why, all of a sudden, do they have five times the amount that would kill them? What led them that day to do that? Is it suicide? Is it homicide? Is it an accident? How do you prove it? You can’t,” he continued. 

“To me, these drug dealers who are giving these amounts of drugs out should be charged with homicide.” 

Nay’s frustration is exacerbated by the cost of determining the cause of death for so many people.

“I’ve had to go to the county and ask for more money, because my budget is blown,” Nay said. “We just have one overdose after another, and people want answers. People want to know exactly how a person died, and an autopsy is the only way to do it.”

For 2017, the coroner’s budget is $59,016. Of that, $30,000 is set aside for autopsies and toxicology screens, which are used to determine the type and quantity of any drugs the deceased may have ingested.

As of Aug. 9, Nay said his office had spent $22,800 of the $25,000 budgeted for autopsies and $3,630 of its $5,000 budget for toxicology screens. The remainder of his budget is compensation for Nay and his three deputy coroners.

Nay expects both funds to be depleted soon, with more than three months remaining in the fiscal year.

“Something’s got to change, and I don’t know how to change it. I’m at a loss,” he said. “As a coroner, I would love to be able to change people’s mindset. ... I have spoken to civic groups and we’ve tried to get the numbers out there to try to help people, to make them aware there is a problem in our community. 

“I don’t know how to fix it, but I know every time we bury a child – and it’s a suicide – you feel helpless.”

The hardest times for him, he said, is when the deceased is a child of someone he knew from high school.

Not only does Nay deal with the death at the time as coroner, as a funeral director he often has to deal with the aftermath.

“Now you have to help this family survive this horrible ordeal,” he said. “I’ve had families that it’s destroyed and families who are trying to heal and do something” to raise awareness.