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My First Autopsy

JeffJeff Wonoprabowo -- The woman instructed me and my classmates to gown up. I wasn't sure who she was. She never introduced herself. Maybe she was a nurse. Or maybe one of the investigators. After I had put on the shoe covers, mask, hairnet and gown, I was led into a large room that had a number of exam tables lined up along the walls, each next to a sink.

I had been to an anatomy lab with cadavers before. But this sight was strange. The bodies lying on the metal exam tables weren't donated to science. They were waiting to be autopsied by a medical examiner.

My partner and I soon found out we would be observing Dr. X (identity withheld) perform an autopsy on a homicide victim. The victim, who I'll refer to as Joe, lay waiting on the table, his eyes still open. He was a little bloody. I could see the bullet wounds. Some were small with superficial, circular abrasions indicating an entry wound. There were, of course, larger wounds that appeared to be exit-wounds.

Dr. X called and pointed us towards the report that had been filed about Joe. The first page contained a written note about what was found at the scene. The next few pages included color photographs of the crime scene. X-rays of Joe's chest and abdominal area hung on a nearby wall.

Five hours later, Joe's heart, lungs and liver had been removed, cleaned and weighed. Over ten blunt-force trauma wounds and twenty-one bullet wounds had been labeled, photographed and measured. Entrance and exit wounds were connected -- at least as best as one could, given the circumstances.

After five hours I left. My legs were tired. Maybe I'll cross off surgery from "my list." I also left with a renewed sense of how delicate life really is. Nothing slams that home more than seeing a human being whose life was ended prematurely under a rain of bullets. I couldn't help but think of the men and women in the armed forces fighting overseas.

Many of my classmates got "lucky" and only had to witness a 40-minute autopsy. I'm glad I got to see a homicide autopsy -- even if it was five hours long.

December 31, 2008 in Jeff Wonoprabowo | Permalink


i believe that you have experienced such a lesson. despite the irresistible sympathy you felt about the victim, this might be your most notable thing for the event was happened in the end of the year

Posted by: inda | Dec 31, 2008 10:14:30 AM

In my country we are required to take a course on "Forensic Medicine" since we all have to do 1 year of mandatory service in rural/underserved areas where we are required to be everything from primary care to obstetrician, also forensic doctor.

I performed about 4 autopsies in this course, all as long as you said, and one of them were two brothers 18 and 20 years old, each one had about 6 GSW. It was pretty impressive since they were "fresh", stll had their clothes on, and were "packed" just how they sent them from the crime scene, exactly how they were laying on the floor of a soccer court in Bogota's suburbs.

The other ones were a guy who got ran over by a car, another old guy who died alone in his apartment, and another GSW victim who spend around a month in an ICU with extensive peritonitis, I don't even want to recall the bad smell, it's the ugliest thing I have and I will ever smell.

Posted by: | Dec 31, 2008 10:23:27 AM

Try an E.R. rotation.

Posted by: therapydoc | Jan 1, 2009 5:20:42 PM

forensic!!!!! i'm coming!!!!

Posted by: jonazzz | Jan 3, 2009 12:03:38 AM

I think you are confusing Surgery with Pathology particularly Forensic Pathology. Watch the very first episode of Greys Anatomy (Season 1, Epsiode 1) and you can't help but just LOVE surgery.

Posted by: Kene Mezue | Jan 3, 2009 5:29:20 PM


I actually work at the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator while attending classes at my university. I am a medical technician (for now) in morphologic pathology, which requires me to conduct autopsies every other day. I agree that the whole experience gives you more appreciation for the sanctity of life, but a whole new enthusiasm for doing the stuff we love best, which is help people.

Posted by: William R. Hannah, M.T. | Jan 6, 2009 5:35:05 PM

to kene, i think he meant that his legs were tired because of standing for only 5 hours which show that he doesnt want to do surgery where a procedure might take up to 12 hours...also, try to differentiate tv show from real life. surgery in real life is nothing compared to "grey's anatomy" (although i love that show dearly)

Posted by: vivian | Jan 6, 2009 10:57:45 PM

My first autopsy, I permormed on a little baby girl of 4 months old. I was already an istructor of the signature of forensic medicine. It was really hard to do it, because I think children should not die, and least by neglect. She died of a simpple pneumonia. After the autopsy, my students asked the doctor if they could touch the baby´s organs, and he said: sure, you wont kill her, that really shoked me, it´s a memory I will have with me for the rest of mi life. But i still want to be come a surgeon...

Good, luck

Posted by: Isabel | Jan 7, 2009 8:53:27 PM

Hi jeff, i'm impressed how you put a different view of an autopsy session..most of us maybe will just remember the smell..

Just wondering, are you taking medical study overseas or in Indonesia?

Good luck figuring out your fields, your 'list', but i think you have to experience all of the rotation before you decide, just to make it fair, right.

Posted by: Maria Valentine Saragih | Jan 8, 2009 12:00:07 AM

I wanted to see a homicide autopsy!! Unluckily, where we didn't receive those kinds of cases. The most interesting one we had was a guy who committed suicide by hanging...

Posted by: Darran Reyes | Jan 8, 2009 6:11:19 AM

I m second year resident in Forensic Medicine at India and till today i have performed more than 2000 autopsied including almost all cases like hanging, drowning, burns, accidents, fall from height, electrocution, poisoning, stabs, choking, traumatic asphyxia and a lot more.......
But till not any firearm with bullet inside the body because its very rare in india...........
Its really great that opportunity to conduct first autopsy and that of firearm

Posted by: Dr.Pragnesh, India | Jan 8, 2009 6:27:17 AM


I'm studying medicine here in the United States (Loma Linda University). It really isn't overseas for me since I was born and raised only about an hour from here.


Posted by: Jeff W | Jan 8, 2009 11:08:46 AM

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Jeff. I wish all doctors would understand that a life has been taken away, regardless of the situation and not judge the individual. Every person has precious time on earth and deserves respectful treatment- yes even in an autopsy.

Posted by: Mandy | Jan 8, 2009 11:33:51 AM

i am med stud 4th years,..before entering med field,im in love with forensic medicine...but after first time i see autopsy being performed suddenly i do not like to be forensic pathology anymore...as a medical student we need to observe ten cases and performed 2 autopsy guided by doctor...huh,i really 'enjoy' it...

Posted by: fuyoo | Jan 11, 2009 12:42:01 AM

hi jeff. wut a coincidence. this morning i had my first autopsy too. i helped the forensic residents to examine the head part. it was thrilling for me because i realized i had to open the head to reach the brain. and i found depressed skull fracture which probably be the cause of death. the last thing i did was taking the brain out of the skull, and that was the most amazing experience in my medical life!! well,i guess im starting to like forensic!

Posted by: Karina | Jan 13, 2009 7:04:41 AM

I'm an intern in South Africa.... yes, crime capital of the world.
In our 5th year, we did 2 weeks of forensic autopsies. Here, most autopsies are done by technicians as the workload is too great for the pathologists alone.
An autopsy takes less than an hour from start to finish, teaching included. So in one morning, we'd see at least 5 autopsies.
Even though we're pretty conditioned to the violence (my trauma unit gets at least 2 GSW's daily, nevermind the hundreds of stabbings and car accidents), it really hit home when our lecturer told us one of the ladies we were going to autopsy was on the front page of the local newspaper. Reading her story after actually seeing her was really tough. She was a young mother with a promising future in law ahead of her. It disturbed me for months.
It's interesting to hear about other med students' experiences about forensics...

Posted by: Dionne | Jan 14, 2009 12:13:28 PM

I can't imagine myself in such a situation. I always have been considering doctors very brave people

Posted by: Winstrol | Feb 14, 2011 6:37:23 AM

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