Forensic Anthropology Law Enforcement

Sydney Gillums, Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office

Sydney Gillums

Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office

sogillums@gmail.com

I served as an intern at The Medical Examiner’s Office in Travis County in the Fall 2017 semester. The Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office is an agency that uses information provided by external and internal autopsies, medical records, and circumstantial evidence to determine time and cause of death. The pathologist is the umbrella of this agency because they are the ones who perform the autopsies and ultimately determine the cause of death of an individual. The Medical Examiner’s Office also houses the toxicology lab, investigators office, administration office and the morgue, where autopsies are performed.

I spent most of my time in the investigators office and the morgue. The morgue is near the investigators office due to vital part of their relationship in figuring out the cause of death. The Death Investigators has many different jobs that help the Medical Examiner determine the cause of death based on circumstances that may have been at the scene. Death Investigators go out to the scene of an individual who has just passed away and document the detailed circumstances of the death and interview the family to confirm medical history about the deceased individual.

I performed many tasks as I shadowed the investigators, some of them included counting pills from recent death scenes in order to indicate whether the individual was abusing medicine or if they were regularly taking their medicine as prescribed, answering and documenting hospice cases within the VAST system where all records of deaths are kept, and performed examination photos of the individual. As photos were being taken, a head to toe examination was completed so that we can assume a cause of death and perhaps identify whether foul play was involved. These steps had to be done at the scene to confirm cause and manner of death in preparation for the autopsy the next morning.

I realized, while interning here that having a background in anthropology could be very beneficial. I say this because as an anthropologist you are taught the study of anthropology with both the biological features that make us human (such as physiology, genetic makeup, nutritional history and evolution) and with social aspects (such as language, culture, politics, family and religion). I remember going to a scene and analyzing a case where a family relocated from Mexico in terms to find a better opportunity for themselves. This case was one of the memorable ones because I remember the family not being able to speak English, the decedent and the wife were not legally married, and the decedent did not have a proper U.S Identification card. The process was at a stand-still because of the different issues but the overall experience was very educational for me. The next-of-kin would have been the wife, if they had been legally married but the actual legal next-of-kin are the children and they lived in Mexico. So, we had to get in contact with his children in Mexico who had to sign off and give his “wife” permission to handle his arrangements. The family did get closure and were able to figure it out all; we worked closely with this family to make sure they were receiving the right information and getting things completed correctly. One of the death investigators who studied anthropology helped this family and mentioned a Ruth Benedict quote, “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences”. Systematic barriers are sometimes put in place to adhere a group of people and we, as anthropologist must learn about these tactics to change the world, little by little. I realized that understanding the different politics, cultures and families in the anthropological stand point allows one to follow grasp the concept of that some people do not have the same access or opportunities as you.

My personal experience interning at TCMEO has not only taught me the policies and procedures of a Death Investigator but has also taught me so much about the jurisdiction of deaths, populations and overall life lessons. Working with corpses has allowed me to reflect on life and since then I have appreciated my friends and family wholeheartedly. Each day was a unique experience and it got a little easier to suppress my emotions de-compartmentalize everything. My passion for science and medicine compels over the trials I will face in this career and I will continue my education within this field. I want to be a part of the advancement of medicine as it reigns all. I will begin studying for Medical School as I pursue to my long-life dream of becoming a doctor.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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