Stephanie Sommer has visited more medical examiner offices in Michigan than most medical examiners.
And then there are the funeral homes.
Her work as senior medical examiner (ME) and funeral home liaison is about clearing the path to donation for donors and families who want to help others with their gifts. It also involves making sure MEs and funeral directors can do their own essential work with donation in the mix.
“Stephanie is the face and voice of donation for funeral directors in the state,” said Tim Schramm, owner of Howe-Peterson Funeral Home in Dearborn and Taylor. “She cares about the person who made the gift and wants to make sure that person is cared for in a dignified, compassionate way.”
As a 19-year veteran with the organization, Stephanie has built hundreds of relationships with MEs and funeral directors from remote counties in the Upper Peninsula to bustling Detroit, where medical examiners oversee death investigations at one of the country’s busiest morgues.
She can name all 83 counties and tell you exactly how committed their medical examiners are to helping make donation a reality on behalf of their residents.
“Complex collaboration with ME offices is crucial for both donation and death investigations to happen,” Stephanie said. “Coordinating the time-sensitive donation process with their important work, including autopsies, can be a challenge. But it happens, even in the most intense scenarios.”
Professionals at more than 700 Michigan funeral homes also need support so families can donate and still have traditional viewings and services for their loved ones. Stephanie understands their challenges and makes sure they have everything they need.
She helps with education for embalmers by holding up the incredible work of funeral professionals who champion donation. She also works with the Michigan Funeral Directors Association to solve problems and celebrate successes.
“They have their own important work to do, and we all serve families, so working closely with Gift of Life’s partners is key,” Stephanie said. “The results are incredibly rewarding.”
Jeff Wisniewski, vice president of regulatory compliance at Gift of Life, said Stephanie is incredibly connected and creative.
“She never gives up. That’s crucial in her role because she’s on the front lines of making donation happen,” he said. “Her network across the state is tremendous.”
Stephanie is also committed.
“Her job isn’t 8 to 5, Monday through Friday,” Jeff said. “She takes calls in the middle of the night, and I know I can get ahold of her anytime. She answers the phone and just says, ‘What do you need?’ That’s commitment.”
Stephanie said the job can be challenging because there are dozens of puzzle pieces that must align for donation to take place.
“So many hands and hearts must come together,” she said. “It’s complicated, challenging work with incredible rewards. For families, that means something good comes from their grief and loss. And we know how much it means for recipients. They get their lives back.”
Tim Schramm said Stephanie is determined and kind: “She’s great with families and she also recognizes funeral service professionals for their willingness to honor the wishes of those families. Stephanie is a tremendous representative for Gift of Life and she’s also just a great person.”
“That’s not something you can teach.”