As a pathologist, I often get questions from friends or family members about autopsies. Most of the information available to the public is through TV shows like CSI, which, although entertaining, aren’t very realistic and neglect to show the non-forensic side of autopsy pathology. At the University of Vermont Medical Center, our hospital autopsy service performs approximately 130 autopsies per year, all on patients dying from natural disease.
Why should I request an autopsy for my family member?
Autopsies serve many important purposes. For you, as a family member, an autopsy can provide an explanation to why your loved one died, help confirm a diagnosis, and discover disease that may have implications for the health of you and your family. For example, many forms of dementia (including Alzheimer’s Disease) can only be confirmed by examination of the brain at autopsy. Other diseases may be identified at autopsy that were not previously recognized, including cirrhosis, atherosclerosis, or benign or malignant tumors. Any of these findings are important for relatives to know about, so they are aware of their own medical risk.
We also use the autopsy findings as a quality control measure, and provide feedback to members of the health care team so we can improve our care for other patients with similar diseases. Tissue samples may be taken for medical research, and autopsies are a key component of medical student and resident education. In these ways, an autopsy not only helps you understand a loved one’s death; it can help us better care for all patients.
Will an autopsy interfere with our funeral arrangements? What exactly happens during an autopsy?
If you request for your family member to have an autopsy, it will be performed during the following business day (although exceptions may be made if necessary). Our procedure does not prevent you from viewing the body, or having an open casket service afterwards. During the autopsy, organs and tissue are removed and examined; then, tissue samples are taken for examination beneath the microscope. If you request it, we can limit our examination to a particular location or organ. A full copy of the final autopsy report will be available to you and your family member’s health providers once completed.
What does an autopsy cost?
The next-of kin of any patient at the University of Vermont Medical Center or affiliate hospitals may ask for an autopsy to be performed at no cost to the family. Although most commonly autopsies are performed on those who die while admitted to the hospital, autopsies can be arranged for those who die at home or in an outpatient setting.
If you would like any further information regarding the autopsy examination, please contact our autopsy service at 802-847-3570.
Alison Krywanczyk is a resident in the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at the University of Vermont Medical Center. This article is co-authored by Suzanne Tucker, MD, Medical Director of the Autopsy Service.