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Medical Examiner Ms. Jamie Obarst MAG
What is the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner?
A 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 pathologist.
What kind of education does your job require?
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 residency.
And, all doctors are required to have a certain number of hours of continuing education to keep their certification.
What made you want to become a forensic pathologist?
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 dictate notes.
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 wound.
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 paperwork.
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 certificate
Who recommends that an autopsy be done?
The chief medical examiner and I decide. We also get cases referred to us from outside counties by their coroners.
Are all autopsies done the same?
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 examined.
How long does an autopsy take?
Normal autopsies take about two hours, but I have had some homicide cases where they lasted 15 hours over a few days.
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 taking.
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 us.
How many people work for your department?
There are two forensic pathologists here who do autopsies and four full-time investigators.
For high-profile 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 evidence.
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 it?
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 forensic pathologist.
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.
Here we 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 specialties.