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Nicole R. Jackson

Out of more than 1000 autopsies, there have only been a handful where I looked at the deceased and thought, under different circumstances, that could have been me. When I tell people about my job, it is usually met with shock and awe. My response fluctuates between “It becomes academic and intellectual after a while,” and “We’re all built for something!” The reality is that much of this job requires you step away from cases – to mentally distance yourself from humanity for a brief period of time. One of my earliest and most memorable cases was one where I could not. It was a case of a relatively healthy Black woman roughly the same age, build, and skin tone as me. She was born on the “wrong side of town” – the poorer area of the city with limited access to quality healthcare. She trusted and married the wrong person: a repeat adulterer who unknowingly exposed her to HIV. She trusted a broken, under-resourced hospital that missed the fact that her HIV infection had progressed to AIDS. She died soon after in that very hospital after seeking help for dyspnea – not once receiving appropriate treatment or reaching her doctor’s office. I don’t often cry after cases, but I did then. So many things fatally failed this woman – her partner, her healthcare providers, her city. 

Years later, her face has faded from my memory but I still remember her story. It is not a happy one, and, unfortunately, not unique in America. Much of what autopsy and forensic pathologists do is establishing what happened. We find answers on the individual level, bringing closure to grieving families and communities. We deliver those answers to care providers, public health departments, law enforcement agencies, and the criminal justice system to address huge issues. We speak for the dead, but our work informs systems that serve the living.

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