Forensic Pathology: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

When I was about to complete residency in anatomic and clinical pathology, I was speaking with a colleague and mentioned I was pursuing dual fellowships in forensic and cardiovascular pathology. He furrowed his brow and asked, “What are you going to do with that?”

I was slightly surprised by this response, but he’s not the only person who would react that way. Many people (even pathologists) think of forensic pathology as gunshot wounds and motor vehicle accidents. While those deaths do come to our office, the majority of autopsies performed in the forensic setting are still due to natural causes, with heart disease making up a significant proportion. My interest in cardiovascular pathology was piqued when, as a medical student, I observed an autopsy on a healthy adolescent athlete who collapsed during a cross country race. The pathologist identified a congenital anomaly in his coronary arteries, in which the left coronary artery arose from the opposite cusp and traveled between the aortic and pulmonary arteries. This meant the coronary artery was susceptible to compression by the two surrounding, larger arteries, leading to ischemia and potential lethal arrhythmia whenever his heart rate became elevated. In another case, a relatively healthy young man had suddenly collapsed shortly after taking his first dose of prescribed azithromycin for a sinus infection. While the autopsy was macroscopically unremarkable, postmortem genetic testing revealed a likely pathogenic variant in a gene associated with long QT syndrome. In the context of the azithromycin (a drug known to prolong the QT interval), a lethal arrhythmia was triggered. His family was unaware of this heritable channelopathy, and they were urged to see a cardiologist themselves for a risk assessment.

These experiences made me see how our ability to detect and identify subtle cardiac disease at autopsy could have profound impacts on the emotional and physical well-being of families. It’s not news that pathology is facing a shortage of recruits, and both forensics and cardiovascular pathology are particularly feeling the squeeze. Unsurprisingly, these are both fields to which residents have very little exposure. Many residents don’t rotate through forensics until their 3rd year (after they’ve already chosen a specialty) and few academic centers have a specialized cardiovascular pathology service. The required number of autopsies to complete residency has now been decreased from 50 to 30, meaning residents see even less cardiovascular pathology during training. I can anecdotally add that myself and several other forensic pathologists I’ve met were occasionally discouraged from entering the field by academic mentors, who considered it a waste of potential. As a profession, we need to recognize the public health impact and academic worth of forensic autopsies and encourage residents’ exposure to the field. Not only is a well-trained forensic pathologist needed to accurately interpret injuries at autopsy, they are the front line in recognizing natural diseases that went undiagnosed prior to death. Additional cardiovascular training helps us to recognize potentially heritable cardiovascular disease; this not only helps families understand why and how their loved one died, but it also affords them the opportunity to obtain screening and interventional measures. It isn’t just natural deaths, either; people who died from any cause could have early signs of heritable disease, and overlooking them could mean disastrous consequences for the family. I would strongly encourage any pathology trainee with an interest in public and preventative health, molecular pathology, and non-neoplastic disease to consider combined training in forensics and cardiovascular pathology. The National Association of Medical Examiners offers free membership to trainees, and the Society for Cardiovascular Pathology offers a one-on-one mentorship program to introduce new members to the field – you will be a welcome addition to either or both groups! If you have specific questions you’d like to ask, I’m available at

-Alison Krywanczyk, MD, FASCP, is currently a Deputy Medical Examiner at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: