The new forensic pathologist at the Health Services Authority has only been on the job for one week and he has already averaged an autopsy a day.
John Heidingsfelder, who started 6 March, has almost 30 years experience in the field. He estimates that he has performed between 4,000 and 5,000 autopsies overall as a forensic pathologist in Louisiana, Indiana and Illinois.
‘My experience has been that wherever I go, autopsies follow,’ Dr. Heidingsfelder said with a smile.
He is ready to use his expertise to enhance forensics in Cayman.
‘I think forensics is a very popular thing now with the public,’ he said, citing the recent case of Natalee Holloway in Aruba as one that has stirred a lot of interest in the science.
‘Cayman is a first world country and has a fairly high standard of living and interest in pursuing justice issues. So, I can understand wanting to expand in that area and I hope to help in that endeavour.
‘I’m learning the coroner’s system here. It’s different than in the States,’ he added.
Despite the differences, many things are the same.
‘What I find most interesting is not so much the differences as the commonality. The facilities here, the level of training of the people who assist with the autopsies, the autopsy procedures are all very similar.
‘I feel very comfortable with the way things work here and certainly they are comparable with places I have worked in the past. I am impressed with the level of professionalism of the police and the people who work in the forensic facility. The techniques used here are similar to the US. It makes it very comfortable to walk into a circumstance where many details are similar,’ he said.
Dr. Heidingsfelder outlined the autopsy process.
‘It takes from two to three hours to do an autopsy and that procedure is just a small amount of the time to complete the case.
‘The process also includes paperwork, collecting tissue biopsies which are used to make microscopic slides, examination of the slides under the microscope, proofreading autopsy reports and correlation of the autopsy with the toxicology findings.
‘It takes another 10 to 12 hours to complete the case. The average turnaround here based on the facilities will probably be a week to two weeks,’ he said.
Before Dr. Heidingsfelder arrived, visiting pathologists from other countries would have to perform autopsies. This at times had been associated with greater delays in the performance of the autopsy examination due to scheduling difficulties, he said.
He explained how his work will aid police investigations.
‘My job as forensic pathologist is to do autopsies to try to determine the cause of death and how death came about, to interpret the medical evidence in a court setting and to try to present that evidence in an objective way.
‘An important point for me is though I do an examination at the request of coroners, the medical information I present I try to do without prejudice to either side.
‘If I were to be considered prejudiced, it would affect the credibility of me as a witness,’ he said.
Of the autopsies he has done here, one or two cases are under police investigation. A final determination as to any criminal activity may come out after combining the results of the police investigation with the autopsy findings, Dr. Heidingsfelder said.
‘Police have attended the autopsies and taken photographs. The police who have attended are the ones investigating the case and are knowledgeable on the details of the investigation. This input is important to my overall interpretation of the autopsy findings,’ he said.
During the autopsy, Dr. Heidingsfelder asks questions of the police, talks about witness statements, location of the body and previous medical history.
‘All the investigative information they collect is important to me in my interpretation of the case, for example, their observations of the body at the scene. All this information is important to determine how long someone’s been deceased.
‘In dealing with the police as I have done so far, the goals, perspectives, interests and concerns are very similar to other police I have worked with,’ he said.
Dr. Heidingsfelder, who is on a two-year contract, first visited Cayman 10 years ago to scuba dive.
‘I decided this was a good place and if I could find a job here, I’d be interested. The practice I had in Vanderburgh County (Indiana) was getting to be too busy. The number of autopsies per year continued to increase. Probably the practice there is perhaps 500 autopsies a year. As long as you don’t need to have a life, that’s fine.
‘I got married this past December to Marilyn and I want to have a life with her. To do that, I had to make a change,’ he said.
Dr. Heidingsfelder’s wife and her 12-year-old son, Clayton, will be arriving at the end of this school year.
The pathologist has been diabetic for the last 10 years and he acknowledged that taking care of his health was also a priority.
‘Having a more regular schedule is important to dealing with my diabetes problem. I am in my mid-50s. I want to live a long and healthy life. I needed to have more of a personal life with my new wife. All of these things came together,’ he said.
The catalyst was an ad he found online for a pathologist with the HSA.
‘I’m glad to be here. I think the island is beautiful and after I get settled in, I intend to fully enjoy living here. I’m used to warmer climates. One of the things I missed when I moved to Indiana was being close by the ocean and walking on the beach, which is a very peaceful experience.
‘Right now I don’t have any plans to move after two years. I came here with the intention to spend the rest of my career on the island.
‘I think I can make a significant contribution as a forensic pathologist for the island and perhaps also the region by further enhancing the forensic services available,’ he said.