Whenever she finds time to view the old television series, “Quincy, ME” starring the late Jack Klugman, Jan Gorniak sometimes smiles at the antics of the title character, a medical examiner played by Klugman.
As Fulton County’s chief medical examiner for the last year, Gorniak said female ME’s are relatively rare, “but times are changing,” she said.
“There are a few of us out there as MEs or coroners, but we are definitely out there,” said the married mother of two adult children and one grandchild.
Her office is in charge of investigating sudden, unexpected and usually violent deaths.
“We investigate such deaths as those which occur in automobile crashes, homicides (and) suicides,” she said. “The police investigate the actual crimes, but we investigate the deaths as among our duties is to determine the actual cause of the sudden death and also the manner of death.”
However, many residents may not know the findings of the medical examiner’s office are of public record and can go to whomever may want them, which is usually the police, district attorney and, at times, the family of the deceased, Gorniak said.
A native of the Bronx, New York, Gorniak graduated from medical school in 2000.
Prior to coming to Atlanta, she held the position of deputy chief medical examiner in Washington and was elected coroner of Franklin County, Ohio, near Columbus.
The difference between a county coroner and medical examiner is the coroner is an elected municipal position while the medical examiner is usually appointed by the county’s governing body, Gorniak said.
Although she said investigating the sudden and violent death of a child is one of the most difficult parts of her job from an emotional standpoint, it is just as much the circumstances surrounding the cause of death of that child that, for her, is even tougher.
“It is the violent death of a child who didn’t have a chance,” Gorniak said. “For example, it is the death of a child who didn’t want to be in the same room with kids who had found a gun and started to play with it, but it was the youngster who didn’t want to be there who ended up getting killed.”
John Cross, deputy director of Fulton’s medical examiner’s office, has been with the department since 2001. He said while the office’s employees have always acted in a respectful and professional manner during his tenure there, Gorniak has taken that to the next level in some ways.
“Jan has gone to great strides in improving our professionalism and … community involvement other than death investigations,” Cross said.
He also said Gorniak has made other improvements.
“We are doing a lot of training with our medical fellows and our residents from the Emory University Medical School,” Cross said. “In addition, we have gone into the electronic death registration system, which we have never been on before. This is the system the state of Georgia uses, and that has reduced the amount of time to get our information in so their death certificate can be completed for other parties involved, such as funeral homes.
“We have also instituted multiple training programs for our investigators under Dr. Gorniak’s leadership, and we are making efforts to get all our investigators certified with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, so she has done some amazing things in a year.”
An Atlanta resident, Gorniak said her 27-year-old son just entered medical school while her daughter is a Virginia resident.
In her free time, she said her biggest joy is playing with her grandchild, but Gorniak also said she is a reality show “junkie.”