Inside Report: Recycling program saves lives

Recycling soda cans, plastic bottles and other disposable items, such as newspapers, saves energy.

But at the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office, recycling saves lives.

Since taking office in early 2012, Dr. Beau Clark, the parish coroner, has implemented new procedures and resurrected some old ones that either extend or enhance life for many sick and dying people.

In the early 2000s, the Livingston and East Baton Rouge parish coroners began collecting prescription medicines that otherwise would’ve ended up in garbage cans from some death investigations. The medicines then would be donated to the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, which operates a free pharmacy on Convention Street for sick people with little money.

But several years ago, the East Baton Rouge Parish program fizzled out, said Michael Acaldo, CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Baton Rouge.

Shortly after Clark was elected, though, even before the charity had a chance to reach out to him, he called them and said he wanted to resurrect the prescription donation program, Acaldo said.

The medicines sometimes include expensive blood pressure or heart disease prescriptions that end up in the hands of poor people who might have been skipping doses or sharing their medicine with others because they couldn’t afford their prescribed amounts, Acaldo said.

“It makes a tremendous impact on people who are in need,” Acaldo said of the donation program.

In 2013, the Coroner’s Office donated nearly 70,000 prescriptions to St. Vincent de Paul, up from about 45,000 collected in six months the year before, according to figures provided by the Coroner’s Office.

“The most common death is natural,” Clark said. “So this is one of the things we do to prolong natural death.”

The Coroner’s Office also works to maximize the number of people whose lives are either saved or “enhanced,” as Clark calls it, by working closely with transplant specialists to connect desperate patients with fresh organs and tissue.

In 2013, more than 2,700 people’s lives were enhanced by organ donations from about 100 people, according to Coroner’s Office figures, up from about 2,400 the year before from 145 donors.

“One donor can enhance more than one person’s life,” Clark said, adding that the number of lives enhanced by each donor varies widely depending largely on cause of death.

Ginger Miller, director of the Baton Rouge Regional Eye Bank, credits Clark with creating a communication system that notifies technicians within 12 hours of every death investigated by the Coroner’s Office — an immeasurable advantage in time-sensitive cornea recoveries.

“The sooner you get them to surgery, the better the outcome,” Miller said of transplant recipients.

The eye bank has a waiting list that generally hovers around 75 people, so the bank badly needs as many donors as it can get.

So far this year, the eye bank has received a handful of donations from the Coroner’s Office, Miller said. Last year, it received 15, and it received eight in 2012 during the months after Clark took office.

She said the eye bank collects about 100 donations a year, mostly from area hospitals, which usually leads to restored sight for people suffering from cornea problems that result in issues ranging from blurry vision to blindness.

“Donated corneas are one of the most valuable resources in Louisiana,” Miller said. “You cannot measure the value of a tissue when you need one.”

Ben Wallace covers law enforcement for The Advocate. He can be reached at bwallace@theadvocate.com or on Twitter at @_BenWallace.