Birds were literally falling out of the sky in New York City in 1999 when a new forensic pathologist with the medical examiner’s office was tasked with determining why.
There had been the rare occurrence of four patients on respirators with encephalitis, or swelling on the brain, at a small hospital in Queens around the same time, and when one of them died, the agency was put on the case.
“We didn’t know what virus this was. Nobody knew what was going on,’’ recalled Dr. Barbara Sampson, who had joined the ME’s office only a year earlier — and would become its first female chief 15 years later.
Sampson helped perform autopsies and send collected human and bird tissue in the baffling case to the US Army Medical Research Group of Infectious Disease.
“Low and behold,” the lab identified West Nile Virus “using our tissue,” Sampson, 54, told The Post in a recent interview, as she prepared to exit as the city’s chief medical examiner last week for a top job at Mount Sinai Hospital’s medical school.
Because the virus was mosquito-borne, the city started a spraying program, and the cases ceased.
It was the kind of puzzle-solving challenge that Sampson says led her to want to be a medical examiner.
Sampson, the daughter of a doctor mother and father in the West Village in Manhattan, says that while she always knew she’d be a physician, her dad asked her at age 10 if she might want to be a pathologist.
“He said, ‘It’s the doctor’s doctor,’ ” she recalled. “And I loved that concept. Because I’ve always been, you know, kind of a little know-it-all.”
By age 13, she was telling people, “I’m going to be chief medical examiner in New York City.”
Her prediction came true in 2014, and since then, she has performed thousands of autopsies.
New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner has custody of about 770 bodies a day on average between its Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens facilities.
And Sampson has handled everything from the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to the COVID-19 pandemic, all while juggling hundreds of murders of adults and children as the city’s top pathologist.
Last year, she shepherded the office through the once-in-a-century pandemic that hit the city like a tsunami.
“We didn’t know how big the wave of fatalities was going to be,” she said. “And it just seemed every day, it got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Sampson worked with hospitals around the city to create make-shift morgues to keep up with the escalating number of corpses.
“Our point was to provide them with morgue space essentially so that they could focus on the living and not be overwhelmed by the number of fatalities,” she said.
Another focus of her time in the ME’s office has been to ensure that every 9/11 victim is identified.
Sampson proudly noted that her office is successfully using the latest DNA technology to identify some of even the most degraded remains sifted from the demolished ruins at Ground Zero.
“We made a commitment to the families to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes,” she said.
Sampson acknowledges that the mass-casualty events — and constant flow of homicides, accidents, overdoses and other fatalities in the city — take a heavy toll on her and her employees.
“The emotional impact of seeing the worst that people do to each other — that’s a very difficult thing to get used to’’ she said.
One of those cases involved the infamous abuse death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, who was fatally beaten in 2006.
Sampson testified as a prosecution witness in court in 2008 that the child was unconscious, bleeding from the brain, for as long as 14 hours before her parents finally called for help.
“That subdural hematoma is the straw that finally broke the camel’s back,” Sampson told jurors at the criminal trial of the girl’s stepdad, Cesar Rodriguez. “That was the mechanism of her death.”
He was sentenced to up to 29 years in prison.
“It’s a horrible, horrible thing to have to investigate,” she said of child homicides.
When it comes to many murders, Sampson said, some of the most challenging deaths to investigate are strangulations.
“They can be very subtle,” she said. “As far as homicides go, those are probably the most difficult,” on par with determining the cause of death of “decomposed remains, of course.”
A large part of Sampson’s job is telling families what happened to their loved ones.
“It’s so rewarding to give people some closure at the worst time of their lives by explaining to them in a compassionate but honest way what happened to their loved one,” she said.
The hardest cases are the ones in which “you finish the autopsy, and there’s nothing,” she said.
That’s why she’s most proud of her groundbreaking creation of a molecular genetics laboratory within the office to explain sudden cardiac deaths.
Sometimes, the lab’s work even saves lives.
In 2016, doctors at a city hospital were on the verge of discharging a young woman being treated for a cardiac condition when Sampson’s office notified the patient’s treating physician that the woman’s sister had died of a cardiac genetic mutation.
As a result, the hospital didn’t discharge the woman, and later that night, she went into cardiac arrest but survived because she had remained in the hospital, Sampson said.
“That’s the stuff that actually goes on here,” Sampson said. “It is way more interesting than anything you see on TV.”
The doctor left her post at the helm of the ME’s office last week to become vice chair of pathology at the Icahn School of Medicine.
Dr. Jason Graham is taking Sampson’s place heading OCME.