By Elise Franco
Dr. Joseph Ohr, Mahoning County’s deputy coroner, is in a sense both a healer and a teacher.
Dr. Ohr, a forensic pathologist who has been with the coroner’s office for five years, said his job is not just about performing autopsies. It’s about using science and gathering information to close cases and to bring peace to the living family members.
“The science is amazing because I’m the only type of doctor who, in order to do a good job, has to pull from all the different physical sciences, as well as social sciences,” he said. “That’s very satisfying.”
Dr. Ohr, like any other physician, has patients to take care of — though he said he doesn’t consider his patients to be the people on the autopsy table.
“That person on the table, they don’t care about the whys and hows … I treat the public. I treat the family members by giving them the facts of the case,” he said. “I want to ensure I understand the death intimately.”
Dr. Ohr said the ability to answer those questions and bring some semblance of closure to family members is paramount.
“I am constantly taken aback because even though I’m giving the horrible news that a loved one has died, they say ‘thank you,’” he said. “I think, for [the families], knowing what’s happened is the beginning of the healing process.”
The 50-year-old Boardman native said among the many misconceptions surrounding his profession is the notion that most of his cases are crime-related.
“The coroner’s office is sometimes seen as an arm of the law, and I get that,” he said. “But crime makes up only about 10 percent of my caseload.”
Dr. Ohr said it’s becoming more prevalent that he’s called to a scene where someone has died of natural causes. He said that more and more people aren’t established with a general physician and are dying without family or friends around them.
“It’s strange, because the coroner’s office isn’t necessarily supposed to deal with natural deaths,” he said. “But when this happens, I become their doctor for the purposes of understanding why they died and certifying their death.”
He obtained his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from Ohio State University in 1987, before attending medical school in the mid-’90s at St. George’s University, on the Caribbean island of Grenada. He went to work for the Franklin County Coroner’s Office from 2005 to 2009 before returning to Youngstown that year.
Dr. Ohr said he spent time working in a mortuary as a teenager and knew then that he wanted to pursue a career in forensics.
“I would help with the embalming, and that led to me fetching the bodies out of the old South Side Hospital,” he said. “I found out that I’m very even-keeled when it comes to this sort of stuff.”
Dr. Ohr said his ability to take the work in stride has allowed him to remain in the profession, though it’s not without challenges. Cases involving children are always among the most difficult, he said.
“Like anything that has trauma and drama, there’s stuff you can’t un-see,” he said. “You always get a sense that even a child from the worst neighborhood has this innocent quality and real potential. Seeing that cut short is very tough.”
Dr. Ohr said, however, that it’s hard not to appreciate the position he’s in as deputy coroner. One of the most rewarding aspects of his job is the ability to teach through an internship program with the coroner’s office. The program allows college students to work alongside him and gain real-life field experience.
“I’m in this great spot where I can take on senior students and say to them, ‘School’s out. It’s time to grow up,’” he said. “I take them from student to professional.”
Dr. Ohr said interns are expected to assist with autopsies, as well as accompany him on the scene, collecting evidence and information that will help with the case.
To be completely ready for the job, Dr. Ohr said the students must also learn how to carry themselves while on a scene, talking to victims’ families, police departments and the media.
“It’s about presentation and credibility,” he said. “And that starts with practice.”
The ability to see changes in his interns from the moment they walk into his office until the moment they leave is something Dr. Ohr said he takes pride in.
Melissa O’Connor, 25, of Austintown, and Cassandra Clyde, 22, of Struthers, are both former students who completed the internship.
Dr. Ohr described both women as shy and quiet when they began their internships in 2009 and 2012, respectively. “Now, they’re all urbane and confident. It’s fantastic.”
Clyde, who obtained a bachelor’s degree in applied forensic science at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., is working on her master’s degree in toxicology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
She said the three-month internship helped give her an advantage when she returned to school the following semester.
“I’d just had classroom and lab experience up to that point, so it was the first time I was in a real-world situation,” Clyde said. “I learned so much, and I felt like I had a leg up.”
O’Connor has a bachelor’s degree in biology and bachelor’s of applied science in forensic science from Youngstown State University, as well as a master’s of research degree in post-genomic biology from the University of York in the United Kingdom.
She now works in the Philadelphia Police Department’s forensic science center and said that working with Dr. Ohr and learning from him was easy.
“He’s very intelligent and approachable and a great communicator,” O’Connor said. “He’s a great teacher and wants his interns to succeed, not only in the forensic-science field, but also in life.”
Clyde, who is now working in the toxicology lab at the Washington, D.C., medical examiner’s office, compared her experience with Dr. Ohr to her current position.
“I see so many similarities with how he runs his office to how it’s run in D.C.,” she said. “He could come to D.C. and run the show.”
Dr. Ohr said he’s proud to see his former interns succeeding in the profession he’s loved for so many years, and he’s happy to pass his knowledge and expertise onto them.
As for when he’ll hang up his scrubs, Dr. Ohr said he has no plans for retirement, now or in the future.
“I’ve got an amazing support system behind me,” he said. “And I plan to keep doing this job until they throw me up on that table.”
Dr. Ohr, who said he’s as devoted to his family as he is to his work, met his wife, Kristen, while working in Columbus. They’re parents of a young daughter, whose photos are prominent throughout his small office.
“I’m a lucky guy. I have the most beautiful wife and daughter in the world,” he said. “I have a really great support system.”
Dr. Ohr said he also has a soft spot for music, and started playing bass guitar when he was 13 years old.