Forensic Dentist Helps Bring Closure to Families

Forensic Dentist Helps Bring Closure to Families

By Eugene Curtin

Ken Hermsen, DDS, professor of endodontics at Creighton, is living testimony that human beings are a special breed, as concerned with the dead as with the living.

Hermsen is a member of a Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), which operates under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System.

He can be called at any time to set aside two weeks to travel anywhere in the United States where a disaster has caused sufficient fatalities that dental identification of remains will be needed.

He has, in fact, been called five times — including to New York City in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center, and again in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which led to more than 1,800 confirmed deaths.

The field of forensic dentistry is a little amorphous and lacks a formal educational process, although courses on the topic are much more available today than when Hermsen took an interest back in the late 1980s. It was an interest that led, by the early 1990s, to an affiliation with the Douglas County coroner’s office and with the Nebraska forensic dental identification team.

In 1998, Hermsen joined Region VII DMORT, consisting of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Three years later, he found himself in New York City, attempting to bring some form of comfort to the families of the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives during 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Four years later, he was assigned to a makeshift morgue set up beside a school in the town of St. Gabriel just outside Baton Rouge, La.

The two disasters, he recalls, were mirror images of one another so far as forensic efforts were concerned. In New York, there were many dental records, but given the crushing weight of the World Trade Center rubble, there were few remains to work with. In Louisiana, however, there were plenty of remains but many dental records were deep under water — ruined or irrecoverable.

They did their best, he says, and experienced some success hanging wet dental records out on clotheslines until they dried and the mud and silt could be removed. In most cases the debris, when dislodged, took the images with it, but trained dentists were able to match many remains with dental records nonetheless.

It is traumatic work, Hermsen says, and most people can do it only for so long.

“There is an emotional toll that happens,” he says, “and the authorities feel very strongly that people really need a break. They encouraged us to call home and touch base with family all the time.”

Forensic dentistry, while primarily noted for its work at disaster sites, is also a law enforcement tool, used to identify unknown remains, and sometimes used to clarify evidence by analyzing bite marks.

For Hermsen, forensic dentistry is a public service, performed in an attempt to bring closure to families.