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TV's new glamour job: Medical examiner

With more than a dozen TV shows putting medical examiners in the spotlight, students are showing an increased interest in the field.

Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune

Updated: March 23, 2013 - 3:22 PM

By the time he was 7, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker knew he wanted a career in medicine — as seen on TV.

“I watched ‘Quincy’ religiously growing up,” Baker said. “I can honestly say it influenced my career choice.”

The series, which ran from 1976 to 1983, was the first U.S. television series that starred a forensic pathologist. Nearly a dozen TV shows now feature medical examiners, and those dramas (including “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Rizzoli & Isles”) plus a reality show (“Dr. G: Medical Examiner”) may be steering future medical students toward careers in forensic pathology.

The body of proof? Local medical examiners say they’ve seen a dramatic rise in the number of students asking about a life examining the dead.

In the past couple of weeks alone, Dr. Ross Reichard, who works at the Mayo Clinic and serves as medical examiner to five southeastern Minnesota counties, was contacted “out of the blue” by four college juniors who expressed an interest in his field.

Because it takes 12 years of schooling and residencies to become a forensic pathologist, it may be years before anyone knows just how many star-struck viewers actually go into the profession. But interest, at least, is high.

“Now everyone wants to go into criminal justice, get into forensics, because they’ve seen it on TV,” said Dr. Michael McGee, Ramsey County’s medical examiner.

Every week, McGee gets requests from high school students who want tours of the morgue or interviews for projects or are curious about the life of a forensic pathologist. “I ask, ‘Where did you hear about this line of work?’ Invariably they say, ‘A television show.’ ”

Real vs. on-screen

But McGee and others caution that TV depictions aren’t exactly spot-on job descriptions.

“This job smells; it’s dangerous, and you have to be really careful,” said McGee. “The characters on TV never talk about bodies that are positive for hepatitis or HIV.”

Baker said that when he’s on a crime scene, he may be covered in soot, but never in a $3,000 Armani suit, like his TV counterparts. And Dr. Quinn Strobl, Anoka County’s medical examiner, pointed out that unlike forensic pathologists on TV, “we don’t chase down or interrogate suspects.”

“This is not a glamorous profession,” she said. As for following medical examiners on TV, she said, she rarely has time to watch.

Prospective medical students apparently do.

“The shows and the roles of forensic science in the media have affected our practice,” said Mayo’s Reichard. “I do think it highlights a profession that they might otherwise not be exposed to. Maybe the shows help a high school student decide ‘I don’t want to become a forensic pathologist.’ But for other students who love these shows, the thought of becoming a forensic pathologist is more than just a fleeting idea.”

Caroline Cross, a first-year resident out of the University of Minnesota, said her passion for forensics began with a childhood obsession with ancient Egypt and mummies. But she said she also loved the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.”

“I’m sure students younger than I were — and will be — highly influenced by the forensic shows out there, which is fabulous,” she said. “It’s important that young people gain exposure to this exciting field. Can’t go wrong with free advertising from the entertainment industry.”

A long slog

It will take more than free advertising to vastly increase the number of students graduating from the field. The years of schooling necessary to become a forensic pathologist often make even medical students think twice about their career paths.

Dr. John Crosson, director for pathology residency at the University of Minnesota, said he and his staff interview 40 to 45 candidates each year. Of those, only two or three say they are interested in forensic pathology. Ultimately, only one university resident per year will pursue a career in forensics, Crosson said.

Medical examiners often are a county’s highest-salaried employee. Hennepin County’s Baker made $231,732 in 2012, while Strobl earned $212,106 from Anoka County. But they probably could earn more in private practice. No medical examiner is in it for the money, Reichard said.

“People who are county coroners are considered community service workers,” he said. “They’re not doing it for the money or the glamour. They’re doing it because they genuinely believe in the process. That’s the best thing Minnesota has going for it — dedicated doctors who really believe in what they’re doing.”

Even the local forensic pathologists who say they watch the shows haven’t let the made-for-TV glitz go to their heads.

Baker said he’s familiar only with “Dr. G: Medical Examiner,” which is a re-enactment of autopsies performed by Dr. Jan Garavaglia.

“She’s a good friend of mine,” he said. “You should check it out.”

Strobl said her two daughters are too young to watch or care about the TV dramas, although her 7-year-old once asked her if she was a real doctor.

“You save people’s lives?” the child asked. Not exactly, Strobl explained. “You’re not a real doctor,” her daughter concluded.

For Ramsey County’s McGee, it wasn’t a TV show that led him to his future. It was a speech by Dr. John Coe, Hennepin County’s first medical examiner.

“I heard his lecture and, basically, never left the morgue,” McGee said.

“I did meet Jack Klugman,” he said of the late star of “Quincy.” “I don’t know that that affected my path to forensic pathology, but it was special.”

 

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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