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What Really Happened
by Janis Amatuzio, M.D.


In my practice as a forensic pathologist and County Coroner, my job is to explain a death, “What Happened” to family members, police, and the courts when necessary. To arrive at the truth, I teach my death investigators the distinction between making observations as opposed to rushing to judgment.  “Things are not always as they seem,” I say. “Gather information, document the scene, follow the guidelines, and trust that you will arrive at the truth.”

Occasionally, something unexpected happens during such an investigation, for which I was not professionally prepared.

In the winter of 1994, police officers discovered the tracks of a car leading off the roadway, overturned into a frozen creek bed.  It was 4:45 AM, the engine was running, and the driver was slumped over the wheel with obvious head injuries.  Paramedics rushed to the scene and transported the victim, later identified as a 26-year-old man, to the ER.

Extensive head injuries were diagnosed, and despite all resuscitative efforts, the young man was declared brain dead several hours later.  After confirming positive ID, his legal next-of-kin (wife) was notified.

As Coroner, I was acutely aware of my role in approving the donation of organs without compromising the death investigation process. The patient met the criteria for brain death, but since the death was due to trauma, a coroner’s investigation was indicated.  I spoke with the attending surgeon and he told me the family would like to donate his organs. “I’d like to comply” I told him, but an autopsy must be performed.  “I’ll allow donation as long as it doesn’t impede my documentation of injuries and determining the cause and manner of death.  Do you see any evidence of injury to the chest or abdomen?”  The attending surgeon responded, “It appears to be all head injury. The chest and abdominal scans read as clear with no evidence for internal injury.”

“OK, thanks.  I’ll approve the organ donation before the postmortem exam.

I finished my hospital duties that afternoon and hurried through the underground tunnel to get to my desk in the Coroner’s Office.  From a distance, walking towards me, I saw the hospital chaplain. He looked concerned.  As his eyes met mine he stated, “I have to talk with you about the fatality in the emergency room.”  I stepped up my pace to meet him in the empty tunnel, responding I said, “I spoke with the attending physician and OK’d the tissue and organ donation prior to the autopsy.”

“That’s not what I wanted to talk with you about.”  “What is it then?” I asked. “You’re not going to believe this. Let’s go back to your office.”  The hospital chaplain was a kind man who always chose his words carefully.  As I unlocked my office door, he asked, “Do you know how the body of this young man was found?”  “Yes,” I said, “by the Coon Rapids Police Department in a frozen creek bed at about 4:45 AM.”   “No,” he said.  “Do you know how they really found him?”  “Tell me,” I said.  “I spoke with his wife. They were recently married. When I was talking with her she said something that really stopped me.”  He paused and held my eyes with his, “She told me that at about 4:20 AM she had a dream, a profound dream, in which her husband was standing by her bedside apologizing, telling her that he loved her, and that he had been in an accident.  His vehicle was in a ditch where it couldn’t be seen from the road.  She abruptly awoke, called the Coon Rapids Police and with absolute certainty told them her husband was in an accident not far from their home and that his car was in a ravine where he could not be seen from the road.  His body was discovered by officers less than 20 minutes later.”

I felt a chill go down my back.  “Let me call the PD,” I said as I reached for the phone.  The desk sergeant on duty confirmed with his dispatch the time of her call and content.  “Amazing!” I said to the chaplain.  “Did she say anything else?”

Yes, “she told me that it didn’t really seem to be a dream -- he was really standing there, next to her bed.”

Later, I pondered my conversation with the chaplain and reflected on my caveats to death investigators: gather information, document the scene, follow the guidelines and observe and trust that you will arrive at the truth.  Standing at the crossroads of life and death, I occasionally catch a glimpse of a greater mystery and a larger truth.  There was no doubt in my heart that our conversation shared that late afternoon in my office felt true.  But there was no way to prove it to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.  It was simply there and seemed more a reminder than a challenge.  It lifted my heart, put a smile on my face and healed my doubts.  That day I was given a gift and I began to understand a little bit more about what really happens.

**Based on her new book “FOREVER OURS: Real Stories of Immortality and Living From A Forensic Pathologist”  By Dr. Janis Amatuzio, $19.95, New World Library. Available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com

__________________

Janis Amatuzio, M.D., is the founder of Midwest Forensic Pathology, P.A., serving as coroner and a regional resource for counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Trained at the University of Minnesota, the Hennepin County Medical Center and the Medical Examiner’s Office in Minneapolis, she has been in the field of forensic medicine for nearly 25 years. Dr. Amatuzio’s website is: www.foreverours.com.

 

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