Eric Vey, M.D., Erie County’s Forensic Pathologist spoke to Alpha Phi Sigma, the Criminal Justice honors society and a large portion of the Applied Forensic Science department at Mercyhurst on Wednesday, Feb. 28 about Death Investigations: Causes and Manners of Death.
He discussed the general idea of forensic pathology, the role of the coroner, and the categories of death associated.
Vey is the only pathologist in the area and serves 12 different counties around Pennsylvania. He is a Diplomate of the National Board of Medical Examiners, the American Board of Pathology-Anatomic Pathology and the American Board of Pathology-Forensic Pathology.
There are around 500 full-time board certified forensic pathologist that are practicing in the United States, and Vey is one of them.
“My twelve-county service area has a population of approximately three quarter million and encompasses a surface area that is larger than the entire state of New Jersey,” Vey said.
Vey started his education at the University of Notre Dame, and received his bachelor’s degree. He then went to Georgetown University in Washington D.C. where received his Master’s in Physiology, and attended the University of Pittsburgh for medical school.
Vey found himself in this field and decided that it was for him because he was good at it.
“With respect to forensic pathology, once I was exposed to this subspecialty of pathology, I knew immediately that this particular subspecialty branch of medicine was what I found to be most fascinating,” Vey said.
Vey started the lecture by discussing the idea that hospitals are performing less autopsies than they had in the past, because insurance does not cover it. He said that this causes problems because doctors do not learn if they did something incorrectly.
Vey described a situation where a patient comes in and the doctor treats for pneumonia, eventually, the patient dies. If an autopsy is performed, the doctor learns that the patient had polycystic lung disease. If an autopsy is not performed, the next time a patient comes in with the same symptoms, the doctor will treat them the same way.
He explained the coroner system versus the medical examiner (ME). Coroners require some training and continuing education, while medical examiners are doctors.
“ME’s on the other hand, they are usually appointed, they are almost always physicians and overwhelmingly, they are forensic pathologists,” Vey said.
He went into more detail, explaining that the medical examiner system puts strain on the rest of the forensic pathologists in the field. If one of the forensic pathologists become a ME, then it removes one of the 500 from the field, while they are running their office as well as doing autopsies.
“When you stick all of these guys in chief ME positions, you’re increasing the relative burden on the rest of the guys, to the point where the whole quality of the system starts to fail,” Vey said.
Coroners have a legal role to determine the manner and cause of death. Vey discussed the way cause and manner are determined. Cause of death can be from an event that occured years early.
“I just reviewed a case, a guy got shot in Erie in the late nineties, he ended up going to a assisted living home in Buffalo, and finally he died, twenty years later. His manner of death is in fact a homicide, because but for him being shot, he doesn’t end up in assisted living home,” Vey said.
In general, he explained the role that his autopsies play in the legal proceedings. He also said what he does, starting with the external examination of a body, internal exam, collecting fluids and swabs.
Vey also explained that when he needs help with bone evidence, he “sends it right down the hall here to Dr. Dirkmaat and company, because they know a lot more about that then I need to.”
Vey showed a lot of pictures of all the various types of blunt force injuries, sharp force injuries and gunshot wounds, which would probably be considered gruesome to some, but for the students present for the lecture, it was intriguing.