“Some people think an autopsy speaks for the dead,” Ben Margolis says, while a photo of a cadaver flashes on his computer screen, “but it’s really for the living.”
Margolis, a 46-year-old M.D. with a specialization in pathology, is one of a handful of private autopsy practitioners in Chicago. He’s about to add a new project to his private practice of two years: Friday afternoon presentations open to the public. For $15, anyone can join him in a sleek conference room for a slide show and conversation called “Beyond CSI: The role of medical autopsy in family recovery after a loss.”
I meet Margolis in his small, tidy Willis Tower office on the 84th floor (he performs autopsies in funeral homes), where he briefs me on his slide show. He looks the part—small, pale, with short graying hair shooting out in wild tufts. He boasts a cum laude B.A. from Harvard and an M.D. from University of Chicago. His eyes light up when he points to a hypertensive heart or a smoker’s lung topped by air-filled apical pleural blebs. When his excitement reaches an apex, he lets out a snort-like laugh.
But he takes his clients’ emotions very seriously, warning me that, regardless of my reporter’s toughness, I might experience discomfort. “If you’re caught off guard quickly, feel free to step out,” Margolis cautions. For these Friday discussions, he’s expecting to speak to both CSI fans and a more sensitive audience: people inquiring about a loved one’s autopsy.
Surprisingly, the slide show does not make me cringe (barring one particularly gruesome image of a lung filled with blood due to a cancerous tumor that invaded and burst a blood vessel). The waxy embalmed bodies lose their human appearance; much to my relief, pulled-back flesh resembles plastic.
Clicking through the slides, Margolis breaks down the steps of requesting an autopsy, shows pictures of organs besieged by common causes of death (pulmonary embolism, heart attack) and reviews example cases. One goes like this: “We can see it wasn’t the jaundiced liver or the heart attack—the hypertension was the big problem,” Margolis pronounces. A slice of a heart reveals ventricle walls so thick, it resembles a raw, boneless pork chop.
Margolis’s computer-rendered illustrations cover most slides, lightening the content: An aorta chunk is the size of a pack of quarters. A clip-art finger feels for a clot inside a vessel.
In the average autopsy—which ranges from $600 for chest only to $1,200 for a full autopsy—a person may want to see if a hospital committed malpractice. A lawsuit might be under consideration. Margolis’s slide show gives an example of a 78-year-old woman who, before her death, claimed a physician left a clamp in her stomach during surgery.
But the autopsy reveals an uncomfortable hiatal hernia. “Many people think there is a physician cover-up, but there isn’t,” says Margolis, who directs his clients toward counselors but, as a policy, will not refer lawyers to them. “Maybe the patient received quality surgery, but the relationship [with the hospital] wasn’t there,” he says.
What happens after an autopsy: Some people want to teach the hospital about its errors or insensitivity; others learn more about an inherited disease; about 10 percent sue. “I help [clients] learn the vocabulary to have a conversation,” Margolis says. “Any conversation during death is important—it helps bereavement.”
The woman whose husband’s lungs filled with blood desperately wanted to know why he didn’t wake her before he drowned, slumped over the toilet in the middle of the night. “The autopsy revealed it was clearly an emergency. He couldn’t call out—running out of the room was a fight-or-flight response.” Margolis said the findings gave her much-needed consolation.
The slide show ends, my crime-TV intrigue whetted. (The biggest lesson learned: Don’t smoke. It contributes to a litany of torturous forms of death.) For those looking to grasp a loved one’s passing, Margolis’s business card—which he hands me on the way out—says it all. In the bottom right-hand corner, where one might ordinarily list an occupation, Margolis’s card reads “Information, Understanding, Peace of Mind.”