Q: How did you become a pathologist’s assistant?
A: I wanted to go to art school but I felt like I needed to be practical, so I changed my major to biology. I thought I’d land in maybe a laboratory. I wasn’t interested in forensic science but I really liked anatomy, physiology.
For my first job out of college, I worked for the Red Cross harvesting tissues used in transplants. It was long grueling hours and travel all over the state. Then I heard about a pathologist assistant program. I found a doctor who would sponsor me and then did the program.
Q: Were you not creeped out by blood?
A: I didn’t know how I’d handle it at first. I was a little queasy but you learn not to be distracted by the things you see and smell.
Q: What kind of things do you do on a daily basis?
A: I do surgical pathology, which is when surgeons send specimen to the lab. I take slices that can be looked at under a microscope.
Q: When a doctor does a biopsy, how much of a sample do they take?
A: They can be anywhere from tissue that’s one millimeter in size to whole organs. The organs might be removed for cancer, like whole intestines, lungs, kidneys…
Cancer in each organ system is different. Like in an ovary, for example, there are something like eight or more types of tumors. If you multiply that by every organ in your body… it takes intensive knowledge to do this job.
Q: So you do surgical pathology.
A: Then there is autopsy pathology and forensic pathology.
I work at a center in one of the local hospitals. They do forensics in the basement.
Q: That seems like something from TV. Is it always in the basement?
A: It’s almost always in the basement, no windows. Most have back doors for easy access to bodies.
On TV it’s all stainless steel and lit with spotlights. In real life it’s not like that. In this hospital the hallway has green tile and inside has old yellow tiles. The hospital was built in the late 1800s. It has nice stainless steel sinks and tables though.
Q: How long have you been doing this?
A: I’ve been a Pathologist’s Assistant for thirteen years.
I go in on weekends. I might go to one of the hospitals and do all of the surgical cases. Or I might go to a hospital for an autopsy.
Q: What is the autopsy like?
A: I coordinate everybody to be there; I prep and have everything ready. Then the pathologist shows up and they do the initial photography. We’ll have a Pathologist and the Coroner, maybe some Crime Scene Technicians. They usually don’t do fingerprints until they get there. And they have to photograph the whole thing.
The officers and Coroner will tell us the story and any pertinent history. The police officers aren’t as much like as you’d see on TV, like “WE’RE GONNA CATCH THAT CRIMINAL!” They’re more jovial. We might have conversations about movies or restaurants while we work. You get to know them over time.
Q: Are you usually able to tell how a person died?
A: We usually know how someone died. Any time there’s injury it’s pretty easy. Other types of cases can be more challenging.
If the person had an arrhythmia of some sort, for example, and there was no other physical manifestation then it might be difficult to determine why the person died.
Sometimes even the toxicology doesn’t come back with anything. In other cases it’s pretty clear.
What I find to be interesting is to look at the physical things that come with a person. The clothes, the belongings, or other things that help to paint the picture. Or when there are interesting circumstances, looking at the things found around the person.
Sometimes I read about the cases in the paper because the pathologist has to testify in court. Or I hear about it on the news. It’s kind of rewarding to feel like I played a small part in the bigger picture.
Another interesting part is that throughout the process the person had my full attention. Sometimes I think about all the people involved in the case, from the first responders, doctors, nurses to the people who carry the body to the morgue, us, and all the people after us. There are so many people there to help this person.
Q: This seems like it could be an emotionally challenging job.
A: My theory is that sometimes the most rewarding jobs have to be attached to the most pain.
Q: Do the morgues have drawers like you see on TV?
A: Yes, individual compartments exist, and they also have sideways ones. There are some where they stack three bodies in little trays.
The walk-in cooler is by far my favorite. You can just wheel them out.
Q: How many people fit in the walk-in?
A: Eight or nine.
Q: It must be crowded in there. How do you find a specific person?
A: They’re usually in a body bag and the tags are on the toe or the wrist. They are sometimes wearing a hospital bracelet too.
It’s not my favorite thing to walk in and look for a tag. If you have to get someone way in the back… Even though I know the door won’t slam shut I have a fear of having the cooler door accidentally shut.
Q: How many autopsies would you say you do in a year?
A: Probably 500 a year. We’re a mid-size city. I have a friend in a larger city and it doesn’t sound fun.
I’ll do 3-4 cases back to back and it’s grueling. In a way it’s a young-person’s game. It’s getting hard on the back.
Q: I don’t know why I’m asking this, but do you use saws?
Q: Ugh. Why do you have to use saws?
A: That’s how you get the brain out of the head. To see if they’ve had a head injury or show signs of a stroke.
If someone told me I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t mind. I don’t like being anywhere near the face. I don’t want to hurt anything accidentally, which makes me cautious. It’s time-consuming.
Q: This job is interesting to me. Do you like it?
A: It seems to be the kind of job where you can spend the rest of your life learning new things. There is a lot of variety. We’re helping families, solving crimes, helping people with cancer get a diagnosis….
And I do feel like if I was ever attacked—if they knew what I did for a living they might think twice.