Dr. Montegut reflects on 36 years as coroner

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, August 23, 2023

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LAPLACE — Over the past 36 years, Dr. Christy Montegut has arrived at the scene of car accidents, homicides, drug overdoses, and other incidents to investigate the circumstances surrounding unexpected death and guide families through the bereavement process.

As he concludes his ninth term as St. John the Baptist Parish’s elected coroner, Montegut will soon hand over the reins to his son, Dr. Christian Montegut, who is running unopposed in the October 14 election.

Dr. Christy Montegut will continue working at his medical practice in LaPlace and will continue to handle coroner cases while working for his son.

“When it came time to run again, I was not sure I could commit myself to another four years of being coroner and being in medical practice,” Montegut said. “The thought of retirement had entered my head, so I talked it over with my son and his colleague, Dr. Michael Arcuri. They were both interested in doing coroner work, so it felt like the time was right to step aside and let younger guys take over. They talked among themselves and decided Dr. Christian would be the one to run for the job.”

This isn’t the first time Dr. Christian Montegut has followed in his father’s footsteps; he has worked alongside his father at the Family Doctor Clinic for the past 12 years.

Since Montegut has served as coroner, he can now be hired as an assistant.

“This job is not for just anybody. You sometimes have to deal with some very horrific deaths… It also involves cases of sexual violence and mental health emergencies. It’s more than just pronouncing people dead,” Montegut said. “(Dr. Christian and Dr. Michael) understand what it takes and what it involves. I will be there to help and provide assistance.”

According to Montegut, the coroner is contacted in any instance when death in unattended by a doctor, typically outside of a hospital setting. The coroner is also called to investigate when an individual passes away within 24 hours of being admitted into a hospital.

Looking back, Montegut isn’t sure how or why he first became interested in becoming coroner.

A native of LaPlace, he attended Tulane Medical School with a vision of practicing family medicine in the St. John Parish community. He moved back home in 1980 following a three-year training program in Tallahassee, Florida and opened the Family Doctor Clinic of LaPlace alongside Dr. Dominic Arcuri two years later.

Montegut had been in practice for five years when he decided to throw his hat into the coroner race in 1987. He won the election and ran unopposed for another eight four-year terms. His ninth term in office ends this year.

“I can’t really put a finger on it. It was something that interested me, and I thought I might have something to offer as far as death investigation,” Montegut said.

One of the investigations that will forever be etched into his mind is the fatal boating accident that claimed the lives of five young men along the Blind River in August 2008.

Authorities at the scene initially thought the accident occurred at the edge of Livingston Parish. When it was determined that the accident was in St. John, Montegut took a boat out to the scene to take over an investigation that had already started.

“It was extremely difficult talking with the grieving families of young people, most of them in their 20s, who died suddenly and unexpectedly,” Montegut said.

According to Montegut, death investigation has become a lot more detailed over the years. Local trends include an uptick in overdose deaths in the past five to 10 years, particularly involving fentanyl and other street drugs such as crystal meth.

“It indicates to be that we have a serious problem with illegal drug abuse and how deadly it can be,” Montegut said. “I’m not sure where we are headed in the future. A lot of young people are losing their lives.”

Montegut has also observed an increased incidence of mental health problems and a devastating lack of mental health resources.

“The incidence of psychiatric conditions is increasing, but the number of psychiatric facilities is decreasing, and the number of psychiatrists seems to be decreasing,” he said. “It’s created a mental health crisis. We need to tackle this as a society and try to provide more mental health services.”

Montegut had the unique experience of serving as coroner during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the number of infections in the Parish ramped up in Spring 2020, Montegut was called to investigate an unprecedented number of deaths. In the month of April, the St. John Parish Coroner’s Office set a record of 99 death investigations, compared to the usual average of 30 a month.

“I never thought I would see anything to that scale in my lifetime with a viral disease spreading throughout the community and killing people left and right. I had to investigate the cases and examine the bodies when we didn’t know how to prevent the spread of COVID…It was a very scary and humbling experience,” Montegut said.

Montegut was continuously exposed to COVID over the course of a year but amazingly never became ill or tested positive for the virus.

Closing out his 36th year as coroner, Montegut is thankful to his wonderful secretary, Nicole Williams, who has helped him tremendously along the way.

“This job isn’t easy to do, but we do get satisfaction from helping people deal with the loss of loved ones,” Montegut said.