Today, a fifth year medical student, Ryan, joins me to talk about his fourth year elective in Forensic Pathology. Readers of the blog might remember that I found Forensics to be immensely interesting but also emotionally heavy. You can read more of those posts here.
What was your experience with Forensic Pathology at medical school before your elective?
We had a two-week practical rotation and a two-week theory block, both of which I enjoyed. We did not really get to do much practical per se, but did observe a lot of autopsies.
Why did you choose to do Forensic Pathology for your elective?
I have always found it interesting and I always knew that I would do it for one of my two electives. I wanted more exposure in the field and did not really consider doing anything else.
Was there anything challenging about organising this elective, given that you would be working with medico-legal matters?
It was very easy to organise. I got a contact from one of the Forensic Pathology lecturers at my medical school and from there it went smoothly. I didn’t need any kind of clearance, but it was implicit that I would never comment (outside of the lab) on any of the court cases I attended or any of the autopsies I witnessed.
Which skills and knowledge did you learn during the elective?
I attended a lot more autopsies than on the rotation through my school, which was a good experience for someone so interested in it. I also got to handle some of the remains, which you don’t get to do when you are in a group of fifteen students. So I could finally feel what a liver that has undergone fatty change feels like, and a consolidated lung.
The importance of keeping good notes was emphasised, because many of the court cases we went to were of autopsies done YEARS ago.
My supervisor had me peruse her collection of histology slides, which was a great learning experience (and had me spending more time with my Weather’s than ever before).
Court attendance was also very interesting – learning about the process, what to expect in court, and also the fact that a lot of South Africa’s legal system is like medical school: HURRY UP AND WAIT.
For which kind of medical student would you recommend an elective in Forensic Pathology?
Anybody who is interested in it, but it might not be the best idea if you are very sensitive, especially to smells. Cadavers and bodies at the morgue do not smell the same. Also know that you will probably witness autopsies on children, and prepare yourself emotionally for that.
Do you think a sound knowledge of Forensic Pathology is important for a future general practitioner, and if so, why?
Yes. As I mentioned earlier, it is really important to understand how vital good note-taking is. It can save you as a professional one day. A sound knowledge of evidence collection, especially in the case of rape kits, is also vital.
I feel like Forensics is a natural extension of medicine, as death is a natural (sometimes unnatural) extension of life. In this sense it helps with the understanding of medicine.
Lastly, South Africa has a huge shortage of qualified Forensic Pathologists. In small rural areas, it is often a local General Practitioner who performs the majority of autopsies – and since most of us are placed in rural areas for Community Service, it will serve us well to be comfortable with the idea.