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The death care profession is more than just dealing with dead bodies, and we want to educate you about all of the different career options you have in this field.

One potential career that gets less highlighted is pathology, or the study of disease. Forensic pathologists, in particular, use their knowledge of medicine and the body to assist law enforcement by performing surgical autopsies and determining cause of death. There is often an emphasis on violent deaths, but forensic pathologists also investigate sudden deaths of seemingly healthy individuals, deaths of those who have never seen a doctor, deaths occurring in police custody, and deaths resulting from surgical or diagnostic procedures.

For the latest instalment of our ongoing series, Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life, we caught up with Sarah Avedschmidt, MD to talk about what a forensic pathologist does, what popular media gets wrong about the job, and how her critical work supports investigations into the circumstances surrounding unexpected or unnatural deaths.

Dr. Avedschmidt is board certified in anatomic, clinical and forensic pathology. She attended the Loma Linda University School of Medicine and completed her anatomic and clinical pathology residency at the University of Michigan. She has medical licenses in Michigan and California and now works as an independent contractor in forensic pathology. You can follow more on her fascinating life as a pathologist on Instagram!


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life Series

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options
A Day in the Life of a Gravestone Conservator

A Day in the Life of a Death Doula

A Day in the Life of an Embalmer
A Day in the Life of a Forensic Artist
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant
A Day in the Life of a Green Cemetery Director
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Nurse
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Physician

A Day in the Life of a Pathologist


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life of a Pathologist

Tell us about yourself and what brought you to become a forensic pathologist?

I am a board-certified forensic pathologist. I grew up in northern Michigan and travelled around the country for school before settling in northern California. I currently practice as an independent contractor in both northern California and Michigan.

What inspired you to become a forensic pathologist?

 …it is very rewarding to be able help families find some closure after the loss of a loved one. 

I am not one of those people that grew up knowing exactly what I wanted to do and I sort of just fell into forensic pathology. I went to medical school with an open mind and chose pathology as my residency. I knew I wanted a career that would be constantly challenging and one in which I would be able to help people and feel like I was having an impact on the community. I liked forensic pathology because it is kind of a mixture of medicine and human psychology. I like that the field interacts with other professionals, including lawyers, and law enforcement and that it has a big role in public health.

There is a lot of variety and it is constantly challenging. Every day is different! It may seem like we only deal with the dead, but we actually communicate quite a bit with families, and it is very rewarding to be able help families find some closure after the loss of a loved one.

What is the biggest misconception about forensic pathologists?

That we are all socially-inept introverts and work in the basement! I actually can’t stand to watch forensic TV shows because they are so unrealistic. (From the little I’ve seen, they do build on that misconception.) The truth is a lot of us are indeed introverts, but we have to have really sharp communication skills and people skills in order to do our job.

We interact with law enforcement, attorneys, and the deceased’s families everyday and need to describe our findings in a way that everyone can understand.

Run us through a typical day as a forensic pathologist.

A typical day as a forensic pathologist starts by reviewing the cases for the day and determining which cases will need an autopsy. I will perform my autopsy cases in the morning and am usually finished up in time for lunch (sometimes a late lunch). The afternoon is spent writing autopsy reports, looking at tissue under the microscope, communicating with law enforcement or prosecutors and testifying in court.




What was one of the hardest days you encountered as a forensic pathologist?

 In our field, it really becomes a necessity to learn the art of compartmentalizing. 

I don’t have a specific one but anytime I have a child death or potential child abuse case it is always very difficult. In our field, it really becomes a necessity to learn the art of compartmentalizing. When I am at work, I am at work and when I am home, I am home – physically, mentally and emotionally. There are always those cases that stick with you but it is important, not only for your own mental health but also for the sake of each case, to be able to separate your feelings from the job at hand.

What was one of the most memorable days you’ve had as a forensic pathologist?

After finishing up all of my education and training, I had the opportunity to work in Puerto Rico for a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. We worked alongside the local forensics team at the Instituto de Ciencias Forenses in San Juan. I actually began medical school in Puerto Rico and so this was a really awesome experience to be able to come full circle and go back to help the local community.

How can someone interested in becoming a forensic pathologist start the process?

My initial suggestion is always to view an autopsy to see if it is something that you’re interested in doing (details below). If you view an autopsy and are still excited about it, then the first step would be to get an undergraduate degree and apply to medical school. You can major in anything you want, as long as you take the prerequisite science courses needed for medical school. (For example, I majored in Spanish and Psychology!)

You can also find more realistic portrayals of being a forensic pathologist to decide if it’s the right path for you. My fellowship program has an awesome podcast (@detroitsdailydocket), and there’s also Judy Melinek’s book “Working Stiff” and cases of the week on the National Association of Medical Examiners website.

What type of education or training do you need to become a forensic pathologist?

To become a forensic pathologist, you first need to earn your undergraduate degree. From there, you need to complete 4 years of medical school, 3-4 years of pathology residency and 1 year of forensic pathology fellowship. Along the way, you have to pass 3 written medical licensing exams, a pathology board exam and a forensic pathology board exam. It is a long road, but it is worth it!




What advice would you give to someone starting out as a forensic pathologist, or interested in becoming a forensic pathologist?

 There are sights, sounds and smells that go along with the process and it is definitely not for everyone. 

My first advice to someone interested in pathology would be to try to observe an autopsy as early as possible. A lot of people have an interest in the field of forensics and pathology, but it is important to actually view an autopsy to see if it is something that you want to do for a career.

There are sights, sounds and smells that go along with the process and it is definitely not for everyone. The sooner you can figure it out, the better. My suggestion would be to call up your local medical examiner or coroner office and ask to observe an autopsy.


Careers in Death Care: A Day in the Life Series

Careers in Death Care – Your Career Options
A Day in the Life of a Gravestone Conservator

A Day in the Life of a Death Doula

A Day in the Life of an Embalmer
A Day in the Life of a Forensic Artist
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Director
A Day in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant
A Day in the Life of a Green Cemetery Director
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Nurse
A Day in the Life of a Hospice Physician

A Day in the Life of a Pathologist

 

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