My dad was a butcher, which some people think is quite amusing.
A lot of people think (the television show) must have been because of CSI. Well, it really wasn't so much the CSI effect; it was Patricia Cornwell. Patricia Cornwell's books came out in the early '90s. In the early books at least somehow the key to finding out the mystery was examining the body, and people really found that interesting.
I really thought I'd probably be a nurse. So when I told this chemistry professor maybe I should just be a nurse, he said, 'Have you thought about being a doctor?' And I hadn't. I hadn't set my sights that high. I started thinking about it, started thinking that really fit all the things I liked. It was really, I thought, a useful profession. If all hell broke in the world, I always thought you needed farmers and doctors, and everything I grew died, so I decided to pick being a doctor.
If we're working on the case, I have specific things I have to answer, I have to find out, I have to document. It is my case, my job, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I am focused on that when I do an autopsy.
I knew I was in the right place in medical school. I loved it, until people started complaining about things. Diarrhea and constipation seemed to be really big.
I have letters from people telling me that they stopped smoking after seeing one of the specials we did on the show about top environmental reasons why you die - and smoking was No. 1. Don't bother worrying about your PSA level or how good your nutrition is if you're smoking, for pete's sake.
I liked everything in medicine, yet there are some things I didn't think that I would enjoy the rest of my life. Psychiatry was one. Again, I liked abnormal human behavior. I loved to understand why we do things. I just found out that I didn't like talking to people who were abnormal.
We originally intended to see body parts and to see bodies. We realized it would really be too hard on the families and so although they film me doing the work, they never film the dead body. If the body is shown in the show, it's an actor.
I don't smell anything. I truly don't smell anything. Now if my colleague is doing the case and I come in to talk to that colleague for something besides the case, I will smell it. You just breathe through your mouth.
I remember a case where I had to exhume a body. He was a terminal patient, and there was a question if it was a mercy killing by the caregiver. It just so happened that the month before my dad had died, also had died of cancer, so there's a twinge. That was the only case that I've ever dreamed about. That was my first exhumation, and I pictured my dad coming back looking like that in my dreams and then I moved on. . . . The most disturbing part of the exhumations for some reason for me is the amount of mold growing on the face. That was the part that kept coming back in my dreams.
Have you noticed that you don't always listen to your doctor? I had a clinic, as an intern. It was the VA. A lot of these guys smoked and had chronic coughs, and you would tell them to stop smoking and prescribe things to them, and lo and behold, they didn't fill the prescription even though it was free, and they'd come in and they were smoking and it was, "Why are you not listening to me to get better?"
Exhumations are crapshoots. You don't know what you're getting. I've done exhumations on people buried for 75 years who just looked dried out and sort of parchmentlike. And I've done people who've been buried two years and are almost skeletonized. So it's really how well they're embalmed and how much exposure to water.
Febreze always works nicely. My chief investigator will often spray Febreze through the air and then make me walk through the mist.
I tend not to personalize it too much. Each time I was pregnant with my children, I seemed to get an inordinate amount of women who died who were pregnant with kids of the same gestational age of mine. I always thought those were fascinating because I could then get a true visual of what my child looks like, and I never took it personally.
I had a hard time deciding to go into forensics because that whole aspect of being a benefit to society and to people, am I giving that up a little bit? My first husband always said, "Yes, you were" - and I always felt a little guilty. But I don't anymore because, truly, autopsies can help the living. And certainly highlighting the deaths and how people die has really helped.
The cases that are hardest are the suicides because we really have to get into a more kind of personal aspect to rule it a suicide. And oftentimes you feel the anguish that they feel through their notes or through what they told other people or how they lived what were the final aspects of their lives.
Sometimes I do envy people who can sit and read a novel. I envy people who can do a lot of volunteer work. I envy people who, oh my gosh, if I could just take an art class and be able learn how to paint that would be heavenly. I hate to put things off because I realize in my job how fast people can die. So I always do self-evaluate, and that's one thing that the job has taught me. Because I may die tomorrow, and would I be happy with the way my life is lived? And it's okay that I haven't learned to paint yet.
© 2010 Florida Trend magazine. Reprinted with permission. Further reproduction prohibited.
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The chief medical examiner in Orange-Osceola counties is the star of Discovery Health's Dr. G: Medical Examiner. She talked to Florida Trend magazine recently.