Interview with a Pathologist: “I’ve Performed Around 50 or so Autopsies”

Ben Stueben, MD is a Board-Certified Pathologist. Check out his experience with performing autopsies.

As the weather cools, the pumpkins and skeletons emerge from their storage boxes, death becomes a regular topic of discussion. But we wanted to learn more about the real nitty-gritty. We talked to one of our in-house doctors, Ben Stueben about his experience performing autopsies. Can you relate to his experiences? Share yours below.

How many autopsies have you performed?

Around 50 or so I believe.

How much can you learn from a person’s lifestyle in their autopsy?

You notice a lot during the gross examination with abnormal appearances and weights of various organs.  More information becomes available after the histologic examination of the various organs under the microscope.

How much time between the time of death and an autopsy is ideal? Can you wait too long?

As soon as possible is really what you want to go for, really.  You kind of have to go along with the set of circumstances you are provided with though.

What’s the most shocking thing you’ve ever seen?

There was a dead baby which was never picked up by the mother and had been in the hospital morgue for 27 years or so.  Everyone just pretends that it is not in one of the coolers.

autopsy equipment

What was your most memorable case?

The first autopsy was the most memorable. I began doing them in medical school and it was a female my age who had intracerebral bleeding as a result of cocaine.  She seemed to have her whole life ahead of her.

Were there any cases that were emotionally difficult?

All the pediatric autopsies were very hard for me to go through.

Did you enjoy performing them? Why or why not?

I never enjoyed performing them really. I usually found the circumstances surrounding the patients involved depressing.  I was also sensitive to the smells present after death, and had to eventually begin putting dryer sheets into my face mask to avoid dry heaving during the whole autopsy.

What kind of person is best suited to perform autopsies/work as a mortician?

Someone who is not sensitive to smells for starters. Someone who does not get that emotional would also be happier in this field.

How many people are involved with preparing a body after death?

We usually send the body to the funeral home after we are done.  There are usually at least 2 people involved with the autopsy at the hospital, and the funeral home we dealt with was run by one individual to my knowledge – I did actually meet and talk to this person for a few hours because one of the residents I knew forgot to remove the pacemaker from his autopsy and I went to remove it for him at the funeral home.

autopsies

Briefly walk through an autopsy. What do you examine first?

We usually start with photographs of the outside of the body and with various measurements.  Anything abnormal and visible on the outside of the body is documented – from old scars to new injuries.  From there we make a Y-incision from the neck down to the pubic bone in order to remove all of the internal organs, which are placed aside and weighed.  Sections of each organ are submitted for microscopic examination. If a brain autopsy is to be performed, then the skull is cut at this point and the brain is placed in formalin to be examined in a few weeks.  The Y-incision and head incision are then closed and the body is sent to the funeral home.

Anything else you can add?

Autopsies are not always like they are on TV and can sometimes be dangerous for the physician involved.  For example, there are autopsies performed on patients who have developed AIDS, or had contracted various infectious disease which could be transmitted to the pathologist if he/she is careless.
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