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Terra: “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a TV show!”

Hello/Good evening !

I hope you are doing well. My name is Terra and I have been a medical examiner at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York City for the past 5 years. My job is to determine the cause of death for people who have died under criminal, suspicious, or unexpected conditions. To do this, I perform an autopsy. In other words, I make a thorough examination of the body by closely observing the outside of the body, as well as the internal organs, looking for injuries or natural disease.

My goal in performing an autopsy is to find a natural disease or injury of some kind that caused the person’s death. Not only do I need to know the cause of death (ruptured aneurysm, strangulation, …) but also how the person died (naturally, accidentally, suicide or homicide). Therefore, I constantly work with the police and the investigating detectives. I also write reports on what I have discovered during the autopsy. I also testify in court as an expert in forensic pathology in murder trials.

After the autopsy, I have a very important task: to call the bereaved families to give them more explanation about the death. This is an opportunity to answer all their questions.

In parallel to my work, I share my experience by giving courses to medical students.

To give you an image, my work is not so far from what we see on television in police investigation shows or police series (NYPD, Criminal Minds, etc.). It’s an exciting job and I’ll never get tired of it. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a TV show!

It’s so interesting to put all the information together to understand the cause of death. It’s literally like a puzzle: The autopsy, the investigation, the toxicology results, etc. Each element represents a piece that must be put in the right place to arrive at the final result. I love it!

You’re probably wondering how I did it?

I discovered the forensic profession at the age of 13 or 14 : I was reading a series of detective novels (the “Scarpetta” series by Patricia Cornwell) in which the main character is a female medical examiner named Dr. Kay Scarpetta. I knew right then and there that I wanted to become my own version of Kay Scarpetta – being Medical Examiner! That’s when I decided to make it my professional career.

In all, I completed 13 years of post-high school education to get to this point:

First of all, in high school, at College de Candolle in Geneva, Switzerland,I chose a course of study in which the main subjects were biology and chemistry.

Then, I did 4 years of study at the American university, at Tufts University in Boston, Massachussets, following a pre-medical curriculum (it’s not a program per-se, it’s a concentration in pre-medical sciences like biochemistry, physics, chemistry, math, and biology… it’s called being “Pre-med” because you need those courses as pre-requisites to apply to medical school). I graduated with a Bachelor of Science with a major in Biology.

After this Bachelor’s degree, I applied to medical school and was accepted at my first choice, Tufts University School of Medicine, where I obtained my medical degree after 4 years of study and clinical rotations.

After medical school, I completed 4 years of specialization in anatomical and clinical pathology. This is necessary to pursue a career in forensic pathology since we have to understand disease processes in all of the human organs.

Finally, I finished my studies with 1 year of sub-specialization in forensic pathology.

This is a field that I find extremely exciting! I continue to make discoveries and be surprised. Honestly, I don’t really see myself working in any other career than this. Maybe I would be surgeon because I think it’s the closest to what I do.

Don’t think I had an effortless journey during my years of study! To tell you the truth, I was never particularly good at science. I was almost useless in physics and mathematics. I was just drawn to biology because of my interest in the human body. However, I was better at art, literature, and languages (I speak four of them!). So, I really had to work harder than the others to get there. In addition, I encountered a nuisance during my hospital internships: Patients who saw me arrive in their rooms would directly assume that I was a nurse and not a doctor. There is still work to be done to change this mentality. Fortunately, in medicine, there are more and more women!

Even though I love my job, you should know that I don’t just work!

My work rhythm allows me to spend time with my three children and my husband, but also to develop my other passions. Indeed, if I had to choose a profession that was not related to the scientific field, I would definitely have been an artist because in my free time, I paint, draw and even sell my works. Here are some of them:

Finally, I would like to tell young girls who are afraid of pursuing a career in science not to be discouraged and to follow their dream. The road will undoubtedly be long and difficult but it will be worth it, especially for a profession that you are passionate about. Meet people who are doing what you want to do, ask them questions and if possible spend time with them. There are so many ways to get information. You just have to never lose your motivation, that’s the key! 

Written by Segolene M.

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