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Lodi native Jonathan Lucas finds fulfillment as doctor to the dead

Dr. Jonathan Lucas now deputy medical examiner

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Posted: Saturday, October 8, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 7:27 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

On average, Dr. Jonathan Lucas sees roughly eight patients a day. Sometimes, he only examines two or three individuals. If it is a busy day, he can see up to 20 people.

He always goes over their files in the morning with his medical staff, with the patients typically sitting quietly in an exam room.

Sometimes they come in the day before; other times they arrive in the middle of the night.

But unlike others in the medical field, Lucas’s patients do not need to have their blood pressure or heart rate checked.

They do not need prescriptions filled out for medication, and they do not need vaccinations for things like the flu.

Every one of Lucas’s patients is dead.

Lucas, 43, is a Lodi native who grew up swimming in Lodi Lake and attending St. Peter Lutheran School and St. Mary’s High School in Stockton.

Now, he is a deputy medical examiner for San Diego County, and day in and day out, he works closely with the deceased.

He has even been in the news recently, as the medical examiner caught in the controversial death of a tycoon’s girlfriend.

Whether it’s determining their cause of death or what they ate for their last meal, Lucas has been dissecting every aspect of the human body for more than 10 years.

And while some find it morbid to be scraping tissue samples from a liver or pulling apart ribs with gardening shears, Lucas cannot think of any other job he would want to do.

“This is a very non-traditional role,” he said. “I get to investigate and figure out certain things about a person that are not readily apparent to the naked eye.”

‘Being a doctor seemed like a good idea’

Lucas grew up with his mother, father and younger sister on Greenwood Drive near Lodi Lake.

Even as a child, Lucas enjoyed passing the time by putting things together and finding solutions to problems, be it building structures with Legos or assembling cabins with Lincoln Logs.

Lucas even had the board game “Operation,” where he remembers attempting to pull out body parts like the funny bone before his tweezers brushed the body, causing the game to buzz.

And though he played “Operation,” Lucas said the game in no way indicated his future career.

Lucas dabbled in everything from soccer to tee-ball as a kid, but said he truly preferred music.

As a student at St. Peter Lutheran School, Lucas would find himself playing piano for Anna Hu, a teacher at the school, and her colleagues, who had formed a singing group.

Hu, now the principal at St. Peter, said that while most high school boys would have turned up their noses at having to play with a group of women singing choir songs, Lucas willingly agreed to accompany the trio.

“He started out as a fill-in when we couldn’t find anyone else to play the piano,” she said. “It was so funny to see a teenager willing to play along on the piano for three middle-aged ladies.”

When he began attending St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, he immediately joined the marching band.

A self-proclaimed band geek who played the clarinet because it was “the coolest instrument (he) could come up with,” Lucas also dabbled in shotput and discus.

As a student, Lucas said he was extremely adept with math, but as the college application process loomed, he felt he could not foster much of a career in mathematics.

“Looking back, it was foolish to think I couldn’t do something professionally with math,” he said. “But I always enjoyed science, especially chemistry. Being a doctor seemed like a good idea.”

After high school, Lucas headed to University of California, Riverside, where he majored in biology.

‘I didn’t want to sit behind a microscope all day’

Lucas was on the fast-track to medical school after he graduated from UC Riverside in 1990.

He had spent years studying every aspect of the human body.

He could instantly identify every part and function of a human heart. He could recite all 206 bones that are in the human body, and he knew which chemical mixtures could save a life, or end one.

Lodi resident Susan Petersen, whom Lucas had become friends with in high school, had headed to UC Riverside with Lucas.

During their time in the dorms together, Petersen said that while others struggled with the intense college curriculum, Lucas’ studies came easily.

“He could talk about anything,” she said. “He could explain physics to a 7-year-old and they would get it.”

Once he graduated from UC Riverside, Lucas headed to a hotspot for criminal activity — Reno.

Lucas enrolled in the University of Nevada at Reno’s medical school, where he said he decided he either wanted to be a family doctor or a surgeon — he was not entirely sure.

He said he went through the motions, studying more and becoming more knowledgeable of the various aspects of the human body, disease, birth and death.

After he graduated in 1994, he returned to California. But once he returned, something changed.

Halfway through his residency program at UCLA, Lucas realized he was getting bored with medicine.

“I didn’t want to sit behind a microscope all day in a basement,” he said.

But then he was given the opportunity to work in the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office.

For an entire month, Lucas did nothing but work in the morgue, examining patients.

Day in and day out, Lucas’s most trusted instrument was a scalpel and a microscope as he tested his knowledge and skills from what he had learned at UC Riverside and in Reno.

“That month in Sacramento kept clawing at the back of my head, and I realized that I didn’t want to target my energy towards being a doctor anymore,” he said. “I was completely sold on being a pathologist.”

So Lucas completely shifted gears, he said, and enrolled in pathology classes that would help him to understand the science of the causes and effects of diseases.

A speciality branch of medicine, pathology deals with the laboratory examination of samples of body tissue for diagnostic or forensic purposes.

At the time, the hit television show “CSI” had yet to appear, and Lucas said that for the most part, forensics was not a particularly popular field.

Once he completed his residency at UCLA in 1999, he wanted to get as much experience as possible, having just started to work in a field most others had been training in for years.

He traveled throughout the United States to perfect his newfound passion, working as a medical examiner anywhere from New York City to Albuquerque, N.M.

In 2001, a man from the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office called. A position in their department had opened up. They wanted Lucas.

‘Drilling through the emotion’

Lucas immediately accepted the position, and shortly after arriving in San Diego, “CSI” made its television debut.

Once a field of obscurity, Lucas said the appeal of being a medical examiner has exploded.

Determining time of death, conducting DNA tests and solving mysterious deaths became an idolized job for many who were fascinated by a lifestyle portrayed on television.

“It was a great way to bring people some knowledge of the field,” he said. “The show gave them a starting point. But it also creates a false expectation of what we do in our day-to-day jobs. DNA tests don’t take a matter of hours, and we don’t catch the bad guys.”

But Lucas does conduct DNA tests, and he does figure out how people have died.

He cuts open the body in a Y-shaped incision from shoulders to mid-chest and downward. He carefully dissects lungs, kidneys and intestines.

Sometimes, he takes blood from the heart to check for bacteria.

Surprisingly, there is almost no bleeding, since a dead body has no blood pressure except that produced by gravity.

In the span of a week, Lucas examines approximately 30 individuals, and each case is like a fingerprint, unique in its own way.

Most recently, Lucas has become somewhat of a notable figure in the news as part of the investigative team looking into the controversial suicide of Rebecca Zahau, the girlfriend of pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai.

Zahau reportedly committed suicide July 13 after she received a phone call that Shacknai’s son, Max Shacknai, would not survive injuries he had sustained from a fall at his father’s mansion on July 11.

According to police reports, Zahau methodically bound her own hands and feet with a thick red rope and hanged herself off the second-floor balcony of a guest bedroom.

She appeared to have secured one section of the rope to the footboard of the bed before she bound her feet, wrapped the rope around her neck, tied her hands behind her back, walked to the balcony, and propelled herself over the railing of Shacknai’s Coronado mansion, the reports state.

Though the autopsy results took more than a month to complete, Zahau’s family said she could not have committed suicide.

Following a press conference on Sept. 2 where Lucas and police officers detailed how Zahau supposedly committed suicide, new details were released in an autopsy report from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

In the report, investigators said they found four separate injuries to the top of Zahau’s head, a piece of shirt stuffed in her mouth, and remnants of sticky tape around her ankles.

Zahau’s family said such evidence suggests Zahau could not have committed suicide, and have requested that the case be re-examined.

Lucas could not elaborate on the Zahau case, saying aspects of it are still under investigation.

Lucas said despite his profession’s often morbid and emotional aspects, he does not let it get him down.

“Being a (medical examiner) can be one of the most emotionally laden fields,” he said. “Every case we take is a tragedy. Someone has always lost a mother, father, brother or sister. But somebody has to see the facts and drill through the emotion.”

Balancing his professional and personal lives has always been something Lucas was good at, Petersen said.

For example, when he is not in his office in downtown San Diego or in the morgue examining patients, Lucas enjoys cycling.

In September, he biked on a tandem from San Francisco to Santa Monica as part of the Arthritis Foundation’s annual charity event, the California Coast Classic.

“He is wise, and you look at him and the way he acts and talks, it’s as if he is an old soul who has been around for quite a while,” Petersen said. “He is one of those people who not only has it together, but who will go down in history for the work he has done.”

Contact reporter Katie Nelson at katien@lodinews.com.

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