KCBD Investigates: Lubbock families frustrated with death certificate delays

Lubbock County Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Addington said the turnaround time is improving, but he understands families’ concerns.
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 9:25 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 19, 2023 at 10:22 PM CST
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - Lee Blaylock never expected he would have a roommate after the death of his wife in 2019.

“It was just me and the dogs,” Blaylock said.

That changed in August 2022, when his 23-year-old granddaughter moved in.

“I have to admit, it’s certainly different from what I was used to,” Lee said.

But Lee said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Shelby and I, we struck a bond many years ago,” Lee said.

Shelby moved in with her grandfather after her mother’s sudden death.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have any other family,” Shelby said.

Shelby said her mom, Katy, fell at work and went to the hospital.

“She fractured her arm,” Shelby said.

Lee said Katy had broken bones in the past, so he wasn’t too concerned.

“Even looking at Katy when she was in the ER, she seemed to be doing very well. She was alert and very responsive to everything that was going on,” Lee said.

Shelby said her mother was discharged that evening.

“We went home. She went to sleep, and then she never woke up,” Shelby said.

Lee said when he got the call that Katy had stopped breathing, he rushed over to their home, where a police officer confirmed Katy was gone.

“I immediately tried to find where Shelby was. She was sitting on the driveway in tears and really emotionally distraught. My purpose then was to comfort her. And try to make some sense out of what was going on,” Lee said.

This was the second heartbreak in just three months for the Blaylock family. In May, a heart attack took the life of his eldest daughter.

“It is a little bit more than anybody should have to bear,” Lee said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about either one of my kids.”

Lee said the Lubbock County Medical Examiner’s Office told them it would likely take about three months to get Katy’s death certificate.

“I just want to find out what happened to my mom. She was my best friend, and it was so sudden,” Katy said.

Three months passed, and the Blaylocks said they still didn’t have answers. Shelby said she continued to call the medical examiner’s office for updates.

“They said it’s going to be four to nine months before I find out anything, and then she tells me people have been waiting for a year. People shouldn’t be waiting this long at all,” Shelby said.

It’s a delay we asked Lubbock County Judge Curtis Parrish about.

“It’s really not anybody’s fault; It is the fault of the system,” Parrish said.

Parrish said that currently, the medical examiner’s office does not have a forensic pathologist, so autopsies are handled at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

And while that office does conduct some testing in-house, Parrish said some samples are sent out-of-state.

“When a tissue sample or a blood sample needs to have laboratory services or lab services, they also send that out to a third party. Now, when COVID hit, in March of 2020, it hit that industry pretty hard. They lost a lot of their workers and their backlog has been tremendous in getting lab results back,” Parrish said.

Lubbock County Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Addington said the turnaround time is improving, but he understands families’ concerns.

“Am I always happy with the time frame of every case? No ma’am I am not, but they hold the key. They are in charge until they give us the body and give us the cause and manner and sometimes that takes a while,” Addington said.

Addington said before COVID, Tarrant County handled several counties’ autopsies, but that’s now been reduced to Tarrant, Lubbock, Denton, Parker, and Johnson Counties.

Addington said Tarrant County will only accept five bodies at a time from Lubbock County, which can also create a delay if there is a large volume of cases.

The Blaylocks said even after Katy’s cremation, they still didn’t know what caused her death because the paperwork was pending, and without a final death certificate, they couldn’t make financial decisions.

Parrish said Lubbock County commissioners do plan to hire a forensic pathologist, eventually.

“I would certainly say within the next two years. We will be recruiting, and we will be recruiting hard and that will come with a cost. Those doctors are becoming more and more rare,” Parrish said.

The Blaylocks hope that whatever the county decides, it creates a more expeditious timeline, so families don’t have to wait.

Shelby said she is thankful she has her grandfather by her side.

“He is so strong. My mom’s best friend likes to call him superman. ‘Sturdy as an oak,’ she says, and I don’t know what I would do without him,” Shelby said.

Weeks after the KCBD Investigates Team conducted these interviews, the Blaylocks said they received the final copy of Katy’s death certificate.

Meanwhile, Lubbock County officials said they hope to build a new medical examiner facility that will help when it comes to recruiting a pathologist.

Parrish said while that would allow autopsies to be performed here locally, the county would still send samples to third-party labs as a cost-effective measure.