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Doctors Working With The Dead For A Living

The sports bar is buzzing with the English Premier League crowd when Dr Ochieng’s mobile phone rings. It’s an investigation officer with the National Police Service, but before he can say more, Dr Ochieng is ready.

Reaching for the change of clothing he always carries with him when he is on call, he swaps his open shoes for a pair of sturdy shoes, and travels to where a dead body awaits.

Dr Ochieng, 42, is a forensic pathologist with the Ministry of Health. Forensic pathology focuses on studying the dead to determine the cause of death. This is the profession that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and later, the popular television dramas CSI and Bones.

“It’s really not like those shows at all,” says Dr Ochieng with a laugh. Except when causes are visible only in life, not death, such as arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) or electrolyte disorders (imbalances of salts in the blood), he can always determine the cause of death. “There’s no glamour or mystery.”

Maybe not, but still, his is no ordinary workday. Dr Ochieng takes turns with two colleagues to be the forensic pathologist on call with the police. For one week, he participates in every crime scene investigation involving suspicious deaths, at every hour of the day or night – and death, it seems, has a preference for night.

When Dr Ochieng is not on call, he is likely to be on morgue duty for non-suspicious cases: deaths of hospital patients, drug overdoses, suicides or accidents.

In the morgue, the atmosphere is serious and professional. “It’s like working in an operating theatre, minus the anaesthetist and the anaesthetic equipment,” Dr Ochieng says. “The nature of the work is serious, but we try to make it not excessively solemn.”

When Dr Ochieng is not in the field or the morgue, his days are full with reporting and follow-up meetings with the police and public prosecutors. Complicated cases may require a solid week of round-the-clock work. Dr Ochieng also appears in court as an expert witness, and teaches undergraduates and police officers.

Dr. Ochieng laments about pressure from family members in high profile cases coupled with sometimes how shoddy autopsies lead to police losing key court cases and thereby ending up abetting crime. He attributes this to the fact that several Labs in Kenya either lack the personnel or equipment or standards equal to the task of conducting serious autopsies, whose results can sustain and indeed be the basis of winning a court case.

Parting shot: “I don’t see myself as working with the dead. I’m working for the living, helping them bring closure to the death of a loved one”.

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