One doctor’s job: Identifying those lost crossing the border in Arizona

It’s desperation for a better life that drives people to cross the border illegally. And it’s often the barren desert that keeps their dreams from coming true.

The bodies left behind have created a massive amount of work for the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. There is so much work that the office needs two forensic anthropologists. Most counties don’t even have one but with the high volume of bodies that hit the examination table the office is exploring a different route to meet the demand.

“Now we are doing 200 more exams per year than we had done in 2000 and of course that is too many for one person. So we had to create a position,” said forensic anthropologist Dr. Bruce Anderson.

It’s a position filled by Dr. Angela Soler, a newly-graduated PhD student from Michigan taking on the first post doctoral fellowship program in the office. It’s the only program of its kind currently operating in the country.

“This isn’t just a few individuals who die crossing the border. This is hundreds of individuals. This is a huge problem,” said Dr. Angela Soler.

She has likely been given more casework in the last year than any other single forensic anthropologist in the country. In her time in the position she has gained enough confidence to work on her own in the field and she has freed up time for Dr. Anderson to do the administrative work that comes with the massive amount of bones in the lab.

Dr. Soler’s fellowship is almost up. She will speak at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in D.C. in a few weeks to discuss her position, the only fellowship of the kind currently operating in the country. Now that her time is about up, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess is looking to fill her position.

“We want to be able to offer that experience to other people and essentially train a new generation of forensic anthropologists,” said Hess.

Soler said the move to the border was a bit of a shock. She knew she’d get the resume builder but she had no idea the experience would be so personal.

“These are people. People love them, and they are looking for them and anything that we can do to provide that closure is really important,” said Soler.

She is expected to speak with potential replacements at the D.C. meeting later this month.

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