What’s Your Story?
Dr. Todd Thoma still finds his work stimulating after three decades.
Dr. Todd Thoma, E.R. doctor and coroner, stays on top
Everyone has a story.
Each edition, Tony Taglavore takes to lunch a local person – someone well-known, influential or successful – and asks, “What’s Your Story?”
Depending on how long you live, you will see death up close five, maybe six times?
You lose your parents. God forbid you lose a child. You lose a brother, sister, maybe one, maybe both. You lose one or two lifelong friends.
You’re surrounded by death for maybe a week, making arrangements and hosting a visitation, a service and a burial.
But you know the darkness of death will eventually give way to bright light.
Unless you have chosen to make death your career.
For more than three decades, 66-year-old Dr. Todd Thoma was around death every day. For 31 years, he worked in hospital emergency rooms. What Todd saw was about as gruesome as it can get.
“I will never tell you that it doesn’t bother me. It still bothers me. Even at the end of 29 years of emergency medicine, children’s deaths would bother me. Children’s deaths always bothered me. Adults, I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over, because I got so used to it over such a long period of time that it wouldn’t keep me awake at night. It would bother me when it happened, and my heart would go out to those families. I had to go to the family room and talk to them. But the ones that would keep me awake at night were the children’s deaths.”
For the past 15 years, Todd has been the voter-elected Caddo Parish coroner. Up until last February, he was both an ER doc and coroner.
“When I ran in 2007, I had already been in the emergency department 15 years. I felt like they couldn’t show me anything I hadn’t seen before. Well, I was wrong. I only saw things when they got to the hospital. I didn’t see things before they got to the hospital.”
Looking tan and fit, Todd told me his story over lunch at Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux in Shreveport. Todd said he was on a diet, and the former high school baseball player ordered a healthy entrée’ – the Tuscan Chicken with green beans sure looked good. I ordered a bowl of gumbo and a side salad because, on this day, it was just too darn hot to eat much of anything.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., Todd – one of four children (one brother, two sisters) – was 5 years old when he and his family moved to Shreveport for his father’s work. Todd’s dad is deceased, and his 93-year-old mom lives about a block away from her son. Todd and his wife (Michelle) have been married for six years. Todd has two sons (a urologist and a geologist) who don’t live close by and a stepdaughter who is a senior at Louisiana Tech, majoring in kinesiology.
“Family is important to me.” Todd didn’t grow up wanting to be a doctor, although he admired the profession as a child.
“All of us went to the doctor, and it was always somebody that I looked up to. ‘We’re going to the doctor!’ That was always somebody at the top of my mind that was up on a pedestal and was the epitome of his profession.”
But Todd wasn’t always the best student. “I was kind of wild in high school (Captain Shreve). Consequently, I didn’t study very much. I didn’t care about grades. I graduated in the bottom half of my class, so I never entertained the idea of becoming a doctor.”
Until he breezed, and I mean breezed, through his freshman year at Tech studying wildlife conservation and management.
“I liked science and wanted to do something in the science field. First quarter, I made good grades and didn’t study very hard. The next quarter, I made better grades and didn’t study very hard. The third quarter, I made great grades and didn’t study very hard. I decided if I just studied a little bit, this would be easy.”
Thinking he had the process nailed, Todd took the leap and switched to pre-med. Surely, studying to become a doctor would be much harder – and yield lower grades – than his previous major.
Wrong. “I don’t think I made a B.” Todd graduated in the top one percent of his class and was accepted to medical school.
After finishing his residency in internal medicine, Todd went into private practice. But six years of red tape, declining reimbursements and long hours took its toll.
“Stephen was born my first year of practice. I wasn’t getting to spend any time with him. I would leave home at 7 o’clock in the morning and come home at 10 o’clock at night – every night. I was on call every third weekend. I wasn’t watching my kids grow up.”
So, Todd “went back to my roots.” He worked in Willis-Knighton South’s ER department for two-and-a-half years before going to LSU’s ER, where he spent 29 years.
“I am kind of an adrenaline junkie. Always have been. I think a busy emergency department is the best emergency department there can be.”
And a busy ER meant Todd saw most anything and everything.
“Especially at LSU, we were like pinball machines. You just put your back against the wall and take on all comers. You don’t know what’s coming in. Things may be relatively quiet, then a school bus rolls over on I-20. All hell breaks loose. You’ve got to rise to the occasion.”
A controversial coroner led Todd to campaign for the job. In the first election (2007), he defeated his opponent. Todd has run four times since, each time unopposed.
And it didn’t take Todd long to see the difference between being an ER doctor and a coroner.
“When people come into the emergency department, they are either alive or potentially salvageable. They may have been in a motor vehicle wreck and have several broken bones or a leg that needs to be amputated, and we’ve got to do our best to save them. The cases I wasn’t aware I was going to have to deal with are bodies found dead after a week. Mangled bodies because of trauma that would never make it to the hospital because they’re dead on the scene. It took me awhile to get used to that.”
While Todd doesn’t personally perform autopsies (his two forensic pathologists take care of those), he does investigate deaths. It is at his discretion whether an autopsy should be performed. Autopsies are most often done when a crime is suspected or there is a public health risk. Todd’s office performs 225-250 autopsies per year.
“The number of cases I investigate in Caddo Parish every year are about the same every single year. I do about 3,000-3,500 death investigations each year. That’s about 10 a day. The reason those numbers stay the same is because every day, people are born, and every day, people die. The human being has a finite life span. If I investigate a death and it’s a 90-year-old man with terminal lung cancer, it’s the natural history of the way things go. People are born. People die. The ones that are different are a 20-year-old who’s driving down the road, loses control, gets ejected and dies. Those always bother you. You always have feelings.”
As our time came to an end, I asked my final question. As always, “What is it about your story that can be an inspiration to others?”
“Reach for the stars. You have to decide what you want to do, and don’t think you are limited. If you end up being limited, that’s a different story. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try. That’s what happened to me.”