Adding compassion to forensic pathology
For three decades, medical examiner Janis Amatuzio, M.D., made her hard job even harder—voluntarily—because she believed it was the right thing to do.
“My father inspired me to look at forensic medicine with a compassionate heart,” says Amatuzio, a member of the University of Minnesota Medical School Class of 1977. “For me, that became talking to the families after the death of a loved one.”
At first, she says, it was almost unbearable. The grief she encountered was just too much. Sooner or later, she’d hear a sigh on the line. That’s when she’d tell the families how she cared for their loved one and reassure them that she’d do everything she could using all of science’s tools to figure out what happened through the autopsy and death investigation.
“They had to know what happened so that they could grieve,” Amatuzio says. “And then heal. And then get back to meaningful living.”
After the results of her tests came back, she’d send each family a letter detailing what she had found and encouraging them to contact her with questions.
“In some ways, I crossed a line that hadn’t been stepped over before,” she says.
Now, 31 years after she entered the field, Amatuzio is moving on. She stepped down from her position as the longtime coroner and forensic pathologist for Anoka County and 11 other counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin in February.
She’s enjoying spending time with her dogs, horses, and husband—“not in that order,” she says with a laugh—writing her third and fourth books, and simply reflecting on life.
“When you do forensic pathology and you’re a medical examiner, you realize that it’s important to take control of your life, to recognize your dreams and desires, and make them happen,” she says. “Because life can go by in the blink of an eye.”
An intimate exam
Amatuzio grew up around medicine. Her father, an internist, and her mother, a nurse, met over a hospital bed in the University hospital’s pediatrics ward. Though Amatuzio says she wanted to be a “cowboy,” both parents—particularly her mother, Verda—encouraged her to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Eventually, she did. She attended the University’s Medical School like her father had (the late Donald Amatuzio, M.D., graduated in 1944) and completed a one-year internship in internal medicine before she found pathology.
Amatuzio’s father believed that pathology was the basis of all medicine, she says, and encouraged her to explore it. But he didn’t expect his daughter—a warm, caring, self-described “people person”—to fall in love with such a hard science.
When she entered the male-dominated field in 1979, Amatuzio was taught to think of an autopsy purely as an intellectual exercise—to look at the body like a block of wood.
“I was never able to look at an autopsy that way,” she says. “It was always personal. The autopsy is the most intimate examination a person could ever have.”
A special privilege
At the end of her career as a coroner and president of Midwest Forensic Pathology, P.A., Amatuzio felt she had accomplished what she wanted to achieve professionally. She brought together the counties for which she worked to form a National Association of Medical Examiners-accredited office and convinced Anoka County to build a new, state-of-the-art death investigation and autopsy facility.
More important, she added compassion to forensic medicine. Amatuzio says she always has felt privileged to be a part of such intimate times in families’ lives. And she now feels it’s time to pass along her wisdom to future generations.
She already has published two books. Today she’s working on her third and fourth, which aim to take a deeper look at the meaning of life and the ways we use our energy, through the lens of forensic medicine. She hopes her third book will be published by late 2011.
“Forensics is a marvelous reflection of life,” Amatuzio says. “I really think that our fascination with forensics is a metaphor for the evolution of our way of thinking. At this time when it’s desperately needed, when many things seem not to be working, we are starting to ask the tougher questions: Who are we? What happens? And how? We have begun to think again.”
Forensic pathologists, Amatuzio explains, look for patterns of injury and patterns of disease. When she looks more deeply at life, she begins to see patterns of thought that create health or disease and happiness or despair, she says.
“I have learned more from forensics than I could ever, ever imagine,” she says. “It changes the way I look at life, and it makes me really appreciate each day.”
By Nicole Endres