is the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner?
coroner is an elected official. Here in the state of Kansas a coroner has to be a physician but in
some states they don't have to be. A medical examiner usually is a forensic
What kind of education does your
A bachelor's degree, first. Then I went to medical
school; after I graduated I spent six years in residency. My specialty is forensic pathology, and I
did a five-year basic pathology residency followed by a one-year forensic pathology
And, all doctors are required to have a certain number of hours of
continuing education to keep their
What made you want to become a
When I went to medical school I was planning on
going into surgery, but the hours are very long and it's hard to have a private life. One of the
things I like about medicine is the interaction with other doctors. With specialties like
pathology or radiology you have little patient contact but you work with other doctors. I had
decided to go into regular pathology, but as a resident I worked under a very good forensic
pathologist who guided me along.
What is a
typical day like for you? Is it all autopsies?
It depends; here at the
forensic science center we have four medical investigators who screen the cases. On homicides or
suspicious deaths, I go to the scene. On a typical day I come in between 7 and 8:30 and check with
the investigators. Usually there are a couple of autopsies each day, but sometimes there are none
and sometimes there are six. When I'm not doing autopsies, I look at stuff under the microscope and
What part of your job do you like
the best? The worst?
The best is that it is different every day - you
never know what you are going to get. There are some homicides where you have to do a lot of work
but there are others where you look and know that, yeah, he died of a gunshot
The cases that are really interesting to me are the ones where you
don't know what happened and you have to figure it out.
I'm not sure I have
a least favorite part. I guess I would say the paperwork. I really like looking at stuff under the
microscope, but I don't like the
What are some of the reasons that
autopsies are conducted?
They are performed if a death is a suicide,
homicide and accidental death as well as some natural deaths. Let's say a 50-year-old guy is found
dead in his house, and he hasn't been to a doctor in ten years and has no doctor to sign the
certificate. He doesn't have any injuries, thus no one knows why he died. He would come here and we
would conduct an autopsy and sign the death
Who recommends that an autopsy be
The chief medical examiner and I decide. We also get cases
referred to us from outside counties by
Are all autopsies done the
No, not exactly. It depends on the case. There is some basic
stuff we do for everybody. Depending on what the injuries are and what kind of case, you will still
do all that stuff but you may modify it to fit the case. Normally we take out all the organs one at
a time; we take the heart out, then each lung. If I were doing a pediatric case where I thought the
baby had a congenital heart anomaly, I might take the heart and the lungs out altogether so I could
look more closely.
Could you explain what a basic
autopsy is like?
First you get all the information and then you do an
external exam and find out details unique to the body. Then comes the internal exam when all
the organs in the chest, abdomen and the brain are
How long does an autopsy
Normal autopsies take about two hours, but I have had some
homicide cases where they lasted 15 hours over a
What kind of tests do you run?
On almost every case we do a toxicology screen, but it is kind of up to the
toxicologist. Sometimes we will run just the basic drug and alcohol abuse but sometimes we run more
specific tests depending on what medications that person was
Are all the tests done here or do you send
them somewhere else?
Most tests are done here at our toxicology lab.
There are some special tests for unique drugs, and there are a few drugs that require special
equipment that we might not have here. We also have a DNA laboratory, a firearms-analysis person
and a trace fibers person. We don't have a fingerprint person so if we need to identify someone,
either the police or sheriff will do that for
How many people work for your
There are two forensic pathologists here who do autopsies
and four full-time investigators.
cases do you do anything differently?
Usually we take more pictures,
and there is someone here from the police department watching the autopsy. Sometimes you collect
Do you often work closely with the police
in criminal cases?
Yes, they watch to know what happens to help them
in their investigations.
Is there any
difference between what you do and the way TV shows and books describe
The biggest difference is that TV shows have a forensic
pathologist who does everything. They have them trace evidence, analyze DNA and go to every
scene. That makes each one a lab tech plus a police officer and a
Do you have any suggestions
for someone interested in your job?
It is a long road after medical
school and internship but the job is different every day and very interesting. Not everyone can do
this job. Autopsies are very different from any other medical job.
don't really let anyone under 18 watch or participate in an autopsy. So take a basica natomy course
in college and if you don't mind the cadavers, then you might follow it further. You have to have a
very strong stomach and a strong interest in the sciences. If you decide you really like forensics
but don't want to do autopsies there are lots of other things in the forensic field like the DNA
labor various evidence-related
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.