Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

Dissecting the role of a forensic pathologis­t

- KARISHMA DIPA karishma.dipa@inl.co.za

TELEVISION and the entertainm­ent industry as a whole often portray the work of forensic pathologis­ts as glamorous.

But for Hestelle van Staden, this isn’t necessaril­y the case. The South African forensic pathologis­t has recently released her new book, Blood has a Voice: Stories from the autopsy table, which delves into the specialise­d profession.

“There’s nothing glamorous about what we do,” van Staden said.

“On TV, forensic pathologis­ts are depicted as standing next to bodies without any PE (personal protective equipment) on, with beautiful flowing hair, high-heeled shoes and a handbag over the arm.

“The reality is very different: I work in gumboots with scrubs, similar to those worn by doctors in theatre, with a facemask, hair cover, two pairs of gloves and sleeve covers.”

She added that forensic pathology is also “hard physical work”.

“What happens in court is the other misconcept­ion: there aren’t these screaming matches and sudden major revelation­s, although it can get quite acrimoniou­s at times,” she said.

Van Staden explained that one of the reasons for writing this book (which is also available in Afrikaans as Outopsie) was to provide a realistic glimpse into her everyday working life.

“I think that what we do as forensic pathologis­ts is not always known,” she said.

“There’s a very skewed portrayal on TV and I hope that I can maybe aid in showing people what it’s really like.”

Van Staden added that she was passionate about giving some sort of closure to the loved ones of the dead.

“Families will know that there are people looking after their loved ones even after their death, and that nobody is just another number,” Van Staden said.

“It’s important to us that we understand how they died and that we could thereby play our part in the justice system, and even with families getting a degree of closure.”

For Van Staden, being a forensic pathologis­t is also a way of making a difference in the world.

“I really love what I do, and to this day it still fascinates me.

“No two autopsies are the same and the more you look for, the more you see and learn.”

“I might not be able to help living patients, but this is my way of making a contributi­on to society.”

And while Van Staden is thrilled with the release of Blood has a Voice: Stories from the autopsy table, she admitted that putting it together was a challenge.

“It was a lot of hard work, hours that just seemed to flow away, and because we get very limited informatio­n at the time of doing an autopsy, I had to do quite a bit of research to fill in the gaps,” she explained.

“I had the help of amazing prosecutor­s and investigat­ing officers to help remind me of things I had forgotten or to give me additional informatio­n.

“But it’s quite a lonely process. I usually worked late at night, and when I checked again, hours would have passed. And I’m also very inquisitiv­e by nature, so if I read something interestin­g it would take me down rabbits holes, which probably added unnecessar­y hours.”

For the book, van Staden said that it was important for case studies to begin with autopsies and cover all the way to court cases.

“I actually tried to start even earlier, with the background history, if I had it,” she said.

“It felt like the natural progressio­n and how the stories unfolded. I also think that sometimes in South Africa we feel despondent, that people aren’t convicted of crimes,” Van Staden.

“In this way, I had the opportunit­y to show that there are people for whom justice is important, who are committed and work hard, and that ultimately cases do go to trial and criminals are convicted.”

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