Clues to Mysterious Deaths: Doctors Who Help

Leigh Page

November 06, 2019

"Hospital-based pathologists spend a lot of their time looking through microscopes," he says. "Rather than do a lot of autopsies, they examine biopsies of surgical specimens as well as laboratory medicine."

Webb also prefers the work of forensic pathologists. Despite the long hours, he says he still manages to spend time with his family and gets satisfaction from working on difficult cases.

Helping Detectives Solve a Case

Asked about crime cases he helped solve, Webb says his role in crime investigations is to provide information to detectives, not to solve them.

"Forensic pathologists aren't usually expected to be crime-solvers," he says. "We provide objective findings, and law enforcement then has to figure out how it fits together."

Nonetheless, he does have an example of how he was able to use his medical skills to help investigators solve a case.

Police were called to an apartment with blood all over the floor and on the walls. The place belonged to a young man with serious mental illness, and he could not be found.

One of the detectives looked at the blood-splatter marks on the walls and surmised that someone had been shot and killed, Webb says. Another surmised that the body might have been dismembered and removed from the apartment.

But Webb says he suspected the blood might well have come from the young man himself. The doctor estimated that about 2 liters of blood lay around the apartment—maybe enough to kill a person, depending on the size of the body. But where had the body gone?

In the apartment, detectives found letters the man had written to God, showing he had been despondent about his life.

Then a local emergency department reported that the man had turned up there with a deep gash in his hand. "He told the doctors the gash had come from moving furniture," Webb says. The man was treated and disappeared from the hospital before his planned release.

Police eventually tracked him down. He admitted to cutting himself with a large kitchen knife and then lying in bed, waiting to die, Webb says. But he had second thoughts and went to the hospital.

A case that appeared to be a murder and dismemberment turned out not to be a death at all. But Webb says it was no cause for celebration. "This is a common and tragic story," he says. "Suicide attempts are often repeated in the future, and eventually they can succeed."

What Are Forensic Pathologists Like?

Andrews wants to dispel the myth about forensic pathologists that they lack interpersonal skills. "We're not Quasimodos hanging out in the basement," he says, referring to the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Andrew says he and his colleagues deal with families of the deceased, the police, the courts, and other experts.

And rather than being engrossed in the facts of the case, he admits to being deeply moved by many of the deaths he sees. Visiting the murder scene of a mother and her two children, he says he had to sit down for a moment to cry.

"If you totally disengage yourself from the emotional part of the work, you need to get out, because you will have lost all feeling," he says. "On the other hand, if you get overwhelmed by what you see, you also need to get out."

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