When a person dies due to suspicious circumstances, an opinion by Dr. Ben Margolis of the Autopsy Center of Chicago may bring his or her family closure and understanding about their loved one’s final moments.
Before embarking on the delicate work of completing an autopsy, Margolis pays special attention to the family’s story and concerns. “I need to listen to what a family’s questions are, and then I present my information to them in a way that helps them come to terms,” he said during a presentation to a few dozen curious Chicagoans at the Gorilla Tango Theatre. “What I do is very different from what a coroner does.”
Sometimes, those who unexpectedly lose a loved one at home feel guilt for not knowing to call for help or for being unable to perform CPR. Other families request autopsies to screen for genetic illnesses or defects. Some just want to know if their family member suffered in the moments before death.
Margolis explained the case of a 20-year-old woman who died while whitewater rafting in West Virginia, despite being an expert swimmer and in peak physical shape. Her family was told she drowned, but her relatives could not understand how such a death could have happened. They contacted Margolis after a Champaign, IL hospital refused to proceed with an autopsy.
Margolis displayed an image of the woman’s brain on a projector and guided the audience to a small pool of blood on screen. “She had bleeding under the skin, but there was no bruising or tearing,” he explained. “How could you have bleeding under the skin and above her bone, but no problem with the skin?”
Margolis interpreted the trauma to indicate a concussion– the young woman may have hit a rock. “She died from hitting her head, even though she was wearing a helmet. The force was so strong, but the helmet protected her skin.”
Margolis said the woman ultimately died a quick, unconscious death. “It was very helpful to the family to learn this- to learn that she didn’t suffer or experience the awful sensation of drowning,” he added. “They don’t have to feel ashamed that their championship winning swimmer couldn’t swim away.” He said the coroner examined only the outside of her skull.
Tina Riley, a hospice nurse, said she attended the event out of curiosity. “When people have a loved one die, they are usually oblivious to the process,” she said. “Death is taboo in America because people think they are immortal. We’re rich, we’re not supposed to die, we’re not supposed to deal with these problems.” Riley blames advances in medical technologies for the dearth of discussion about end of life-related issues.
Juanita Herrera, a mental health worker, said she began thinking about the emotional aspect of death during Margolis’ presentation. “I never really thought about what an autopsy can do for a family,” she said. “I never saw the emotional aspect.” Herrera added that discussions about death and dying are becoming less taboo in Chicago, partly due to the media’s coverage of violence and murder.
To the audience’s surprise, Margolis said that the vast majority of families he works with want the pictures of their loved one’s body to be made available for educational purposes. “After four years, I’ve had only one family say ‘no’ to photos. We protect the confidentiality of all the bodies, but most families are willing to do anything to help educate others.”