A day in the life of a Chicago Medical Examiner

By Iacopo Luzi

Being a Medical Examiner is not an easy job. Every day work involves dealing with death.

“Things that people shouldn’t see,” said Dr. Steven White, Assistant Medical Examiner and certified forensic pathologist at the Cook County Office of the Medical Examiner, in Chicago.

Dr. White’s day at the office begins at 6:30 a.m., and he never knows what he will have to deal with.

Fortunately not all the cases that arrive at the Medical Examiner office are homicides or suicides. The majority of times he analyzes natural death cases.

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A general coroner typically deals with 2 to 5 cases out of 10 to 30 corpses that arrive each day. Things get really tough when 10 murder victims arrive at a time.

Every autopsy is like solving a mystery, an investigation to understand how and why a person dies. Like Sherlock Holmes, White investigates by eliminating all the possible causes of death until he finds a final solution to the mystery.

It can be hard, sometimes requiring even five hours to understand what led to a death, but White finds his job so interesting. “It fascinated me when I was at the Medical School and I fell in love with it.”

Even though many people believe that the job of a medical examiner is like what they see on TV, experts like Dr. William Muller, chairman of Northwestern University Department of Pathology, says the reality is pretty different.

There are many stereotypes and fake convictions, but pathologists have the last word in every death certificate.

Dr. Steven White checks a slide with a microscope. (Iacopo Luzi/MEDILL)