Commentary: Helping To Restore Identities in Missing Persons Cases

Commentary: Helping To Restore Identities in Missing Persons Cases

Each year, Inova Alexandria Hospital’s Radiology Department conducts more than 30,000 computed tomography (CT) scans that help our physicians, nurses and staff diagnose, treat and heal the many patients who seek our expertise. Our dedicated staff of 16 CT employees and technologists scan injuries from trauma, stroke, sports or chronic disease. They have pretty much seen it all; but a call for help from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) changed all that and launched a partnership that NCMEC has encouraged other hospitals to follow.

In 2010, I was contacted by John Rabun — a former colleague and NCMEC’s then chief operating officer — with an unusual request: Would we please scan the skull from an unsolved murder case in Provincetown, Mass., known as the “Lady in the Dunes?” Normally, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History would handle such requests; however, its CT scanner was broken. NCMEC needed the three-dimensional scan as the basis for creating a new facial reconstruction that police hoped would finally help solve the nearly 40-year-old famous case.

While quite an unusual request indeed, we saw this as an extension of our commitment of caring for the community and a gesture of compassion for this unknown victim. We were honored to participate and hoped that our input might help give this woman back her name and finally close the case. Little did we know, we also set a precedent.

According to Joe Mullins, forensic imaging specialist at NCMEC, our assistance in that case and subsequent others became the launching pad for encouraging other hospitals around the country to also donate their CT services in support of NCMEC’s worthy cause.

“Inova Alexandria Hospital was the first hospital to show the world how it can all work,” said Mullins. By enlisting help from their local hospitals, police departments around the country can retain custody of critical forensic evidence and send only the CT scans to Mullins — one of the few forensic imaging artists in the world to use FreeForm modeling for facial reconstructions.

Since that initial call, we have assisted in three other cases with the NCMEC. We also scanned some ancient artifacts for the Smithsonian, which helped them eventually secure funding to restore their CT scanner to working order. Our CT staff was honored to assist on each of these cases and willingly participated during the necessary odd hours to avoid any interference with our patient caseload.

Unfortunately, the “Lady of the Dunes” case remains unsolved; however, our CT expertise did assist in discovering the mystery behind a child’s skull found in the Midwest in 1988. Known as “Baby Doe” that skull was determined to be of Native American origin and dated back to the 1700s.

We are proud of our contributions on each of these cases and honored to have become the model for other hospitals to follow. Whether we’re caring for our patients or for the grieving loved ones searching for answers, we’re all here for the same reason — to help each other.