By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2000
LARGO -- For the first time since 1982, Pinellas and Pasco leaders are searching for a new medical examiner.
Some are warning them not to expect a stampede of applicants.
With embattled Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood retiring Sept. 30, local officials hope to quickly set up a search committee to interview possible replacements before Wood leaves office.
But given a shortage of trained forensic pathologists nationally, and the availability of higher-paid jobs outside of government service, some say it could be a difficult search.
"A person can graduate from medical school and can spend five years developing expertise in pathology and then take an additional year training in forensic pathology all for the privilege of working in government for less money than they can make in regular practice," said Dr. Joe Davis, who retired after 40 years as Dade County's medical examiner. "You might make a comfortable living, but you won't end up with a stock portfolio. I know I didn't."
Wood, 55, announced her retirement Wednesday, two weeks after prosecutors blamed her reversal in the cause of death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson for dooming their criminal case against the church.
Wood, who was at her office Thursday, declined requests to speak to a reporter.
Wood warned in an interview two weeks ago that it might prove difficult to replace her, both because of the pressures of the job and relatively low salary. Wood earns $145,000 annually.
Others agree, including Dr. Stephen Nelson, Polk County's medical examiner since 1996.
"In the past, when positions have opened in Florida, not a lot of people have applied for one reason or another," Nelson said Thursday. "To me, it's a no brainer. Florida's got a great climate; it's a great place to live."
He and Davis agree that in other jurisdictions, when vacancies occur, a field of fewer than a half-dozen applicants typically applies, often just two or three.
"It's a very narrow specialty," said Davis, noting just 400 physicians nationally are board certified in forensic pathology, often considered a necessity for a medical examiner.
Others are unconvinced, including Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, one of Wood's critics.
"If you offer $150,000 or $160,000 in a location like Pinellas County, . . . I think you're not going to have a shortage of qualified applicants," he said.
Dr. John Gaston, a former chief associate medical examiner in Volusia County, said no real shortage of pathologists exists.
"A lot of forensic pathologists would be glad to come to that area," he said. "I could get you a list of 10 applicants in a minute."