Showing posts with label Medical. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Medical. Show all posts

08 March 2020

Coronavirus COVID-19: The Heroes and the Culprits


Dr Mary Fernando
Mary Fernando, MD
Every time a patient goes to a doctor with a new illness, the story of chasing down the diagnosis is like a mystery novel with one difference: everyone works hard to make the story short with as little excitement as possible.

In medicine, no one wants a long, twisted plot line and the best stories are the boring ones where the culprit is found quickly.

This desire for a short, boring story line has done what nothing else has been able to: it has united the world because citizens of every country want the story of the new coronavirus, #COVID-19, to end before they get a starring role in the tale of a new epidemic.



On December 30, 2019, Dr Li, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, posted on Weibo that he had seen 7 cases of a SARS-like virus and warned fellow doctors to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. This sensible and medically appropriate suggestion resulted in Dr Li being summoned to the Public Security Bureau four days later and he was made to sign a letter confirming he had made false statements. Before his death from Coronavirus on Feb 7, 2020, Dr. Li explained why he warned people initially despite the fact that he knew he might be punished for it: “I think a healthy society should not only have one kind of voice.”


Like the Chinese government who tried to put a lid on information about COVID-19, we have had many others who have tried to do the same for political and financial reasons. There’s nothing wrong with trying to protect businesses, however, there is a great deal wrong with stifling information. The only thing that protects people and saves lives is the truth: if certain activities or places are unsafe, people should know this.

Through the evolution of this disease, there have been many kinds of voices speaking out and, just like in any mystery novel, each new crises reveals a great deal about the character of those involved.

There are some people who want everyone to stay calm – as if one smidgeon of worry will muck up their world. They came out in force at the beginning of this epidemic grabbing every straw they could to dampen down concern. I’m a huge fan of calmness but not when it is coupled with misinformation such as: this is only spread by animals, only spread by people who are symptomatic, the virus doesn’t live on surfaces for days and it is no more lethal than the flu.

Not one of those statements is true and people cannot protect themselves if they don’t know the truth. 


While some grasp at anything to calm people down, others have done the opposite and developed theories to fan all sorts of flames and even to start fires on their own. One theory floated around that this new virus was developed in a lab to destabilize the world. Right on the heels of this is another, very malignant theory that this is a virus that largely infects people of Chinese origin and that they are responsible for the spread of this. This has resulted in racist attacks on people around the globe.

There is another set of characters that have been emerging and speaking loudly: those who take a great deal of reassurance if they know things and even more reassurance if they know everything. Now this person who knows everything is a purely fictional character who has never existed but this doesn’t stop some people from emulating them. If this person who believes they have all the information has a large pulpit, they can spread information that is inaccurate and possibly dangerous.


Who is the biggest, baddest, scariest culprit in the saga of #COVID-19?
 Misinformation, spread by people whose need for calm, chaos or personal brilliance blinds them to the new facts emerging about this virus daily.

Some of those new facts are reassuring, some are worrisome and not one of us knows them all because it is an evolving story. For example, there has been some evidence that gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea may precede respiratory symptoms during infection with this new coronavirus– this is crucial information that could lead people to seek medical attention earlier and therefore limit spread of the disease. Since we know that people without symptoms can spread the disease – unlike with SARS – we can’t assume we haven’t been exposed because no one around us was ill. 


Just like in any mystery novel, we should remain suspicious of all the characters - any one of them could spread misinformation – often not from malice but because their character compels them to engage in certain behaviours that increase misinformation. Bottom line – the only thing that will keep you and those you care about safe is information on how to avoid getting infected with coronavirus.

The heroes of this story? The first hero was Dr. Li  because he had a simple mission: to inform those around him with whatever information he had to keep them safe.

Inspired by the heroes in this coronavirus story, I recently told my children who were traveling with me that – given the fact that this disease can be spread by people who have no symptoms and the virus can live on surfaces for days – they could stay safer if they assume their hands are infected and not touch their face and food without disinfecting them first. This simple set of instructions was the best way I could summarize this disease to the people I care about the most in this world. I also keep telling them that we are in the midst of learning about this disease so I’ll keep them updated. My children must have confidence in me because they grin every time I say this.

As of the 7th of March, 2020, the World Health Organization reported that the number of confirmed cases of COVID19 has surpassed 100K. The doubling time of this disease appears to be around 7 days but the numbers, just like this disease, are fast moving. A peek at that study along with with data used gives an idea of why we need to take a deep breath and keep learning.

10 February 2020

My Own Medical Thriller


I don't write medical thrillers because I only like to do research up to a point, and the amount of research I'd need to write in that field is well beyond that point.

We all can name a few biggies, though. Robin Cook and Michael Palmer each wrote several. I first met Michael Crichton through The Andromeda Strain, and learned years later that he won the Edgar for A Case of Need, originally published under the pen name Jeffrey Hudson. Tess Gerritsen, also a doctor, wrote several thrillers before she unleashed the Rizzoli and Isles series.

I'm now involved in my own medical thriller without planning it at all. So far, it has a happy ending.

Two Sundays ago, I finished my workout at my health club and returned to my car. I had found a space ten feet from the entrance, and now I was sandwiched between two SUVs, each slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. Looking behind me was like looking through a soda straw.

The entrance driveway lay at about 7:00 to my space. The driveway is narrow, especially when cars park on both sides of it, so a sign proclaiming "One Way [right turn only]" guards the entrance. It was almost directly behind me. Another sign says "Do Not Enter" and stands to the left. This makes sure all traffic in that narrow driveway moves counterclockwise. Theoretically.

I eased out, looking to my left, where traffic should come from, and a driver who decided to turn around and take the short way back hit my car. Damage to both vehicles was minor--I have a broken taillight and a dented quarter panel--and I got the worst of it. We exchanged insurance information and notified the appropriate people, then went on our way.

Several hours later, my left arm felt heavy and weak. I've hosted a bad back since 1971, and this felt like the mild collision aggravated the long-standing problem. Oh well. Then my wife noticed I was having trouble using that hand to type at the PC and insisted that we go to the hospital.

The staff looked at my symptoms and medical history (both my mother and grandmother had strokes) and sent me for a CAT scan. Over the next several hours, I got lots of practice telling various doctors, nurses, interns, nurses, technicians and administrators my age (72), the month (January) and that we were in New Britain, Connecticut. I became expert at repeating "Today is a sunny day" and touching my index finger to my nose the other people's fingers in turn.

Every two hours, a nurse or tech asked me for an encore. I had to resist their pushing and pulling with my left hand, which was discernibly weaker. I had no indicators of being a stroke risk: I weigh 15 pound more than when I graduated from high school in 1965, I quit smoking about 15 years ago, my cholesterol level has pleased my primary-care physician for years, and I don't use cocaine. I average about half the "tolerable(?)" amount of alcohol allowed to men my age, and women are more prone to strokes anyway.

So what? The staff decided to treat the issue as a Transient ischemic attack (TIA), in which the blood supply to the brain is blocked for a short period of time and produces symptoms that resemble a strok. In my case, that was the weak arm.

My listening station for The Eagles
 By about 5 am the following morning--roughly 17 hours after the accident and ten hours after my arm first felt weak--I felt fine. But the night felt like I was a shooting scene with police scouring me for shell casings, blood spatter, footprints, and a partridge in a pear tree. I lost count of how many people asked me to answer those questions again and tested my arm and leg strength and coordination. They were like different detectives asking the same questions to see if my story changed.

By early afternoon, they also gave me an MRI, which is kind of cool if you're not claustrophobic. The kids running the machine both looked like former students. Truthfully, when you teach in the area for 33 years, everyone looks sort of like a former student. These two guys let me choose the music to listen to while they ran me through the tube. I picked the Eagles over Katy Perry, Adele, and someone else I'd never heard of.

Back in my room, I talked to two more doctors, three more nurses, had my sixteenth and seventeenth blood pressure checks, and told my age, location and the month again. Finally, the lead doctor told me he was pretty sure I did not have a TIA, but they wouldn't definitely say my troubles were related to the fender-bender, either.

The MRI and CAT scan ruled out a thrombotic stroke, but he wanted to be sure I didn't have an embolic stroke (a clot forming in the heart and traveling to the brain instead of originating in the brain itself) and ordered an echocardiogram, basically a heart sonogram. It was fun and the woman administering it was young, attractive, ultra-competent, and hilarious. She let em hear what my heart sounded like during the procedure, more of a gurgle than the lub-dub I expected. She also apologized for the coldness of the gel she spread on my chest and for having to rip the sensor contacts off my chest and taking all three chest hairs with them.
An echo-cardiogram (posed by model)

They finally discharged me about 24 hours after Barb drove me in. I spend the next month taking Plavix, Lipitor (They both sound like Superman villains, don't they?) and aspirin. They don't think I had a TIA, but they're taking no chances.

I still blame the minor accident. On the other hand, it was cool watching a bunch of people who really knew their stuff give me a first-hand tutorial on medical mystery research.

08 July 2018

Rapists are Criminals: Why do they live among us?


by Mary Fernando, MD

This is my second interview with the Clinical Forensic Medical Examiner, Dr. Kari Sampsel, the only Canadian physician with a fellowship in Clinical Forensic Sciences. She is a Staff Emergency Physician and the Medical Director of the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program at The Ottawa Hospital. 

When victims of  sexual violence come into the emergency room, she is in charge of the rape kit, assessments of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. She is also responsible for setting up long-term physical and mental health care for these victims.

In the last interview, she stated that one in three women will be assaulted in their lifetime, but less than 20% of victims report the rape immediately. Many suffer with increasing symptoms and then are seen. Some never speak up at all.

There is no other crime that I can think of where the victims are so reluctant to report the crime. Further, a society that believes in the rule of law is poorly served when so many criminals are allowed to commit a serious crime and yet are not held accountable. Imagine, for example, how emboldened car thieves would feel if they knew less than 20% of the thefts would be reported. 

Rape is rarely a crime committed in dark alleyways by strangers. In fact, 85% of rapes are committed by people who know the victim. This suggests that the poor reporting of rape emboldens rapists to assault women they know, largely without fear of any legal consequences. While children are most commonly raped by family members or friends of the family, adult are most often raped by current or past partners, or acquaintances and friends. 

One of the rapes with a great deal of stigma is the rapes by present partners. Many don't see how a present partner can be a rapist. To explain, Dr Sampsel says: “Think of cake. You like cake. But if someone shoves it in your mouth and forces you to keep eating until you feel sick, that would not be OK.” 

The other way to look at this is that rape is assault. If a partner, past or present, or a friend beat a person till they were bloody, breaking their nose and perhaps a few limbs, this would be considered unacceptable in civil society. Assault that is physical, but not sexual, is viewed as unacceptable. Sexual assault should be equally unacceptable. 
When a victim reports a rape, or a series of rapes, the response they encounter can make them walk away and not finish the report. Dr. Sampsel explains that there is often a stereotype of how a rape victim should behave: upset and crying.  

However, the reality is that victims display many behaviours. Some are so upset that they are closed off, unable to make eye contact or articulate what happened. Others, will be angry and in ‘protester’ mode, trying to get justice. Some can even look fairly normal, reporting as factually as they can about the incident or multiple incidents.

Add to this the fact that trauma can make victim forget details, the report itself can appear incoherent and less trustworthy. 

Dr. Sampsel points out that, “People are pretty savvy about when they are not believed. If you give someone the ‘I don't believe you vibe’ then they can be done with the process.”
Which brings us to the process itself. It is long and difficult. Completing the evidence kit takes about 2-4 hours. Every sample must be labeled, dated and gathered in a way that maintains the chain of evidence. Also, many of the samples are gathered from places that we think of as private and, if there are lacerations, this can also be painful.

After the history is taken and the samples are gathered, the victim is often faced with the reality that it isn’t safe to return home. If the rapist was a present partner or past partner with access to the victim’s home, either going to a shelter or staying with family or friends helps. Even if the rapist is a friend or acquaintance, their knowledge of where the victim lives could make it unsafe for them to return home. 

Many cities have a victim service, which provides everything from cell phones to volunteers - who will drive victims to their own home to pick up personal belongings, and help them get to a shelter.

If charges against a rapist are laid, they often get 12-18 months in jail. If a weapon was used or there was an attempt to murder the victim, the jail term could be longer. When the rapist is released from jail, the victim is vulnerable to retaliation from the rapist and may get a restraining order.

Does the punishment for rape fit the crime? Jail is certainly punishment. And the rapist must register as a sex offender and this limits the jobs they can get. Perhaps the biggest part of all this is that the rapist learns that they cannot rape with impunity. Rape is a crime. Punishing criminals is not merely about each individual criminal, it is also about deterring future criminals. If every rapist truly feared jail time, the stigma of being a registered sex offender and limited employment opportunities, perhaps one third of women wouldn't face the ordeal of being raped in the first place. 

17 June 2018

Someone Else's Nightmare


“Some men hear the word ‘no’ from a woman, and they push harder with a side of violence,” says Dr. Sampsel. 

As a Clinical Forensic Medical Examiner, Dr. Kari Sampsel is the only Canadian physician with a fellowship in Clinical Forensic Sciences. Dr. Kari Sampsel is an Attending Staff Emergency Physician and the Medical Director of the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program at The Ottawa Hospital. As the Medical Director of the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program, when victims of  sexual violence come into the emergency room, she is in charge of the rape kit, assessments of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy as well as setting up long-term physical and mental health care for these victims.

She states that statistics show that one out of every three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Although those who come into the emergency room are overwhelmingly 18- to 24-year-olds, women of all ages are raped, even those in their 80s.  Since 85% of rape victims know the attacker, Dr. Sampsel says that one of the crucial questions to ask is,“Do you feel safe?” and that this should be a screening question for all rapes. 

Interestingly, Dr. Sampsel says that younger woman are more likely to come into the emergency room to prevent disease and pregnancy, but it is women in their forties who are more likely to complete the evidence kit. Older women want justice but younger women may only want physical safety. 

During the ten years Dr. Sampsel has run the unit, she has seen a marked rise in the number of rape victims coming for help. However, she points out that it is only 10-20% of rape victims who seek help immediately. Some rape victims don't come in because stigma and shame keep them from reporting the rape. Interestingly, Dr. Sampsel says that after being raped, many are confused about what happened. This is only in part because of the use of alcohol or drugs. More often it is that trauma makes it difficult to remember. Later, they may get snippets of memory of the event.

A large proportion of rape victims develop recurrent symptoms like headaches and abdomen pain. Dr. Sampsel’s work is also to educate doctors in the emergency room and family doctors’ offices to recognize these symptoms and ask the right questions. 


I asked Dr. Sampsel how we can decrease the incidence of rape. She hones in on education. On three fronts.

The first thing we need to do to reduce the incidence of rape begins with our children. Young people should be educated in the need for consent on all levels. You don't have to give a hug unless you consent. If you are uncomfortable, you should walk away and adults should support this rather than be embarrassed.

In the emergency rooms and doctors’ offices: there needs to be an education campaign by those in the field, clarifying what to do with rape victims who seek help immediately and also those who come in later. Protocols for treatment need to be in place and these have to be adequately funded to mean anything.

On a societal level, Dr. Sampsel would like to see a public campaign, perhaps like the one that educates people on the signs of stroke. One piece of this would obviously be about consent and how it needs to be given in every circumstance of physical contact. This might seem extreme to some; however, if I rephrased it and said that every person entering your home needs consent and an invitation, it seems like common sense, does it not?

The other piece of this is what Dr. Sampsel calls a social contract: what is done privately between people should be up to the standards of what is allowed in polite and civil society, where we all adhere to the basic principle that how we treat others is how we would like to be treated. This has the perfect makings of a public campaign. 


With one in three women being assaulted, this looks like a healthcare epidemic to me. It rivals the chance of getting cancer or having a stroke. So, perhaps the same steps to reduce the problem are in order. The steps outlined - prevention, identification and public awareness - seem long overdue.


One final and haunting statement from Dr. Sampsel: “People need to realize that their flirtations may be the makings of someone else’s nightmare.”

11 March 2018

The making of a psychopath - A vignette


by Mary Fernando

If Leigh Lundin suggests an article topic, it is always one that is both intriguing and complicated. His ideas keep me up at night. They get under my skin.

When Leigh asked me what creates a psychopath, I knew that was a question worth tackling. It is too big a question to answer fully. I would, however, like to present a small vignette, a window into this issue: please let me introduce Phineas Gage and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPC.

In 1848, a railway foreman named Phineas Gage, had a horrific accident. An explosion shot a metal rod shot through his head. If you look at the diagram of how the rod entered his brain, the fact he survived was remarkable. At first it appeared that Phineas survived the accident with his physical and mental abilities intact. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that his personality changed. He went from being a well-liked, balanced man who was socially adept, to being socially inappropriate and uncaring.

Phineas and metal rod
Phineas and metal rod
What is interesting for the purposes of our question, is that Phineas developed an ‘acquired sociopathy’, or ‘pseudo-psychopathy’. Since then, we have noted that lesions to this part of the brain have left other people with similar impairments, with otherwise normal intellectual function. They have an absence of empathy. They lack interest in the well-being of others.

Every area of the brain is a true team player. No area functions independently, each receiving inputs from many areas and sending outputs to many areas. So, to just talk about one area is a little odd but for the purposes of this essay, I will treat the VMPFC as a sole player. It deserves a spotlight and to take centre stage.

We know that damage to this area causes a defect in empathy. However, few psychopaths have injuries to their brain like Phineas. There may be a genetic component to the development of psychopaths, but here I would like to concentrate on the development of this area.

The VMPC does not come fully developed at birth. It grows and develops, most rapidly before one year of age, and continuing during early childhood.

The VMPC changes in response to the relationships the baby has which can either enhance or diminish its growth.

Enhancing the VMPC growth comes from being loved, with hugs, holding and – most importantly – a responsive adult who says, hey, you are hungry, scared, alone, in pain, let me help. I will hold you, feed you, take care of you. That interaction is the opposite of neglect. It is love in action. And love for a baby is always love in action. From this, the baby gets the social information to form connections later on, and the happiness bathes the VMPC with growth enhancing substances released by the brain.

If an infant is neglected, the VMPC does not grow as successfully, in part, because of the lack of social information and growth enhancing substances. The rest of the story is that the stress of being unattended bathes the baby’s brain in the stress hormone - cortisol - that has a corrosive impact on brain development. This is not an all-or-nothing situation. However, true neglect, like that found in infants raised in orphanages with no interaction, results in true deficits. In some severely neglected infants, we find a functional hole in not just the VMPC, but in the area around it called the orbitofrontal cortex.

Abuse is another way that the VMPC gets damaged. The VMPC of a frightened infant will be bathed in corrosive cortisol and that does not bode well for future empathy.

Now that I have introduced a few of the players in the crafting of a psychopath, I would like to emphasize another one: nuance. Many neglected and abused people do not turn into psychopaths. There is something in the severity of the early experiences and also, likely, a genetic predisposition.

A final thought. For mystery writers, the issue is often about murder and, quite frankly, most murders are not committed by psychopaths. The vast number of murders are committed by people who forget to look into someone’s eyes and see another person. This can be momentary or it can be part of a general lack of empathy. So, nuance means that people who are neglected and/or abused may have a deficit of empathy that allows them to commit murder.

If Phineas and the VMPC have another lesson to teach us, I believe it is that we need to treat our infants well. We all make mistakes as parents but if, on balance, we love them, hold them and don't let them live in fear, we are likely to grow that part of the brain that allows them the most human gift of all: empathy.

11 February 2018

A Voice for the Dead


by Mary Fernando

“I don't believe it, and none of us believe it.”[1]

That was the response to the police assessment of murder-suicide from one friend of billionaires Honey and Barry Sherman. This was followed by a chorus of agreement from many prominent Canadians, and subsequently by an expensive independent investigation which resulted in a revised new assessment of double murder.

Leigh Lundin asked me to look at this now high-profile Canadian crime being played out, blow by blow, in the news. So here I am looking at it. But with Canadian eyes.

Honey and Barry Sherman
Honey and Barry Sherman
My question isn't about what happened in this particular crime. I feel confident that it will play out in the investigation, and that the truth will emerge. My question is this: What would happen if a family disagreed, but did not have powerful friends or the money to conduct their own investigation? What if the family were poor, but still vehemently in disagreement? What if a murderer was on the cusp of getting away with it? Who would stop them? 


I brought this up with Dr. Coroner – not his real name but it would be a good one, because he is indeed a coroner. He is called in if a death occurs outside a hospital, and occasionally in it. His job is essentially to assess the manner and cause of death. Is this death natural, an accident, a suicide or a homicide?

The body can be photographed but cannot be touched until he is finished his assessment and releases the body. He looks at the story, told by the body, of the manner and timing of death. There is also the story told by the place of death, and the question for him is whether it is consistent with the story the body tells.

My question: If the family disagreed with a murder-suicide verdict, but were neither educated or moneyed – what would he do? What if the family was unable to articulate a story as well as the friends and family of the Shermans? What if they were angry and threatening, or in general made themselves unsympathetic?

He said often his job is to help reconcile the disbelief with the reality. Some counselling is often part of what he does with families.

Also, he argues that marriage – by the nature of the long term relationship – can lead people to kill each other, even if they look to others like they are happy. Marriage itself can be the reason for murder.

Those caveats aside, Dr. C. said there was enough from the story of the “murder-suicide” of the Shermans to make him suspicious, largely because the story is wrong. Domestic murder is often more violent, angry. Hanging is not what he would expect as a means of murder or suicide in this case. Hanging is more often seen in cases of mental illness or extreme distress. Further, why would a man who has copious drugs available to him choose this manner of death for himself and his wife?

If the stories of the body, manner of death and family assessment make Dr. C. suspicious in any way, he has many options to augment the evidence he gathers.
  • The authority of the coroner overrides privacy of information, so he can seize records from sources such as the family doctor, psychiatrists, and psychologists. This could provide a more fulsome picture.
  • He can seize all radiological and dental records, to see if there is evidence of previous abuse.
  • He can order a post mortem, or a forensic autopsy and refuse to complete the death certificate or even provide the funeral home with a warrant to bury, until he is fully satisfied.
Ultimately, the story must hang together. Regardless of the ability of the family to articulate their concerns, or their resources to investigate on their own, Dr. C. relies on having a coherent story told by the manner of death, the body, the family and the records seized. If there are inconsistencies – then a further investigation is warranted.

If a family were unable to mount the same vigorous objection and investigation as the Shermans have, it could be the coroner who stands between the constructed truth of the murderer and the actual truth of the victim.

Ultimately, all crime writing is social justice writing. And the poor have a voice – the coroner. The story of the body, uncovering the life lived, the manner of death, might be the key to catching a murderer. The background knowledge and tenacity of the coroner is what most of us rely on when our bank accounts are meagre.

Dr. C. said that the job of the coroner is to provide a voice for the dead, to listen carefully to the story they tell. This is the first step towards social justice for those without money and connections. They do this by asking the simple question:
Does the story of this death make sense?

07 January 2018

Radiology and Murder



by Mary Fernando

Doctor John Doe (DJD) is a radiologist. That is not his real name, but it is his real profession. DJD is the doctor who reads CTs, MRIs and various other images that help diagnose illness. He is dedicated, competent, and once said a line which should be famous: ’When life hands me a lemon, I put it in a bag, find the person responsible and hit them over the head with the lemon.’ I adore him because feisty is always the way to go in life.

I asked him about his thoughts on murder:

DJD: I would be interested in seeing a two victim murder, in which the murderer uses the first victim as a pawn, believing that their death will cause such a deep grief for the the second victim, who is the person the murderer really wants dead, that their staged suicide will appear plausible. To the murderer, it appears like an undetectable crime. The murderer gives the first victim  a blow to the head and then throws them down the stairs or in front of an oncoming car, making it look like a terrible accident.

The second victim is someone who deeply cares about the first. They could be murdered by numerous means made to look like a suicide resulting from grief. Often people are prescribed sleeping pills or anti-anxiety meds to cope with a grievous loss. DJD suggests one easy way to kill them is to get them drunk and grind a deadly dose of the pills they have on hand into one of the drinks. At first blush, this looks like a drinking binge of a depressed person who decided to kill themselves because of grief. The murderer simply has to leave the staged evidence of a booze bottle and an empty, opened pill bottle. 

Could the chain of murders be unraveled, starting with a critical examination of the first, apparently random act? The radiologist could first examine cutting-edge radiological evidence postmortem.

DJD is sometimes called in when the coroner has questions about the cause of death. For example, did the blow on the head occur before the car accident, or was the victim lethally struck on the head and then pushed down the stairs? Using radiological evidence, that distinction can be made.

Although the forensic autopsy still remains the gold standard for post-mortem forensic assessment, the ‘virtopsy’ is catching up, sometimes augmenting or even replacing the autopsy. When there are religious or other reasons for excluding an autopsy, the virtopsy is the only evidence available. Sometimes, even with a pending autopsy, a virtopsy will be used. 

A virtopsy is the pre-autopsy whole-body CT or MRI scan, used to identify cause of death. Some studies have shown that a CT scan may be more effective in detecting some causes of death, and that the imaging may be better than a full autopsy to detect such causes of death as intracranial pathologies (such as strokes) and pneumothorax.

If someone is killed first, say with a blow to the head, and then pushed into the path of an oncoming car or thrown down a flight of stairs, most people assume that the serious and extensive injuries of the fall or impact will hide the original blow to the head. However, careful examination for the radiological evidence can clarify the timing of the injuries. And again, this can be done even if the family rejects, for religious or other reasons, a full autopsy. 

Impact from a car or a fall may show multiple bone fractures of the skull, ribs, vertebrae and extremities, as well as damage to organs. However, these impact lesions will lack the relevant surrounding hemorrhage which would have been expected under these circumstances. In short, if you die before impact, the lesions of impact will bleed less because your heart isn't pumping blood. This bleeding pattern will help identify the actual blow that caused death because of the extensive hemorrhage at that site of injury. 

This new radiological post-mortem examination is a cutting edge means of identifying cause of death and timing of injuries that were sustained. We will, I think, hear more about it as the techniques evolve.

One interesting use of CTs is identifying those who have been poisoned and then hit by a car or who have sustained other injuries. The amount of blood from impact injuries is reduced when the victim is previously killed by any means, including poison. 

A complex chain of events, like DJD’s proposed double murder, can be unraveled by tugging at the simplest loose threads. For radiologists, a virtopsy provides a cutting-edge method to find these loose threads and exploit them.

10 December 2017

Good Drug, Bad Drug


by Mary Fernando

I would like to introduce my colleague: an Emergency Room doctor with a passion for crime novels. He is a father and an all around good guy who saves lives regularly. He is also a passionate fan of crime novels and has some interesting ideas about murder. I will call him Emergency doctor Extraordinaire or EE for short.

My interview with EE was wide-ranging, but one of the issues he discussed at length was fentanyl - a drug that we hear about daily as a killer of addicts. In EE’s hands, fentanyl is transformed into a character, a noble one that has fallen into disrepute, and finally becomes a murderer of one person at a time, or many in one fell swoop.

Let me tell you EE’s story of fentanyl: the good guy gone horribly wrong.

Although fentanyl has been in the news as a deadly street drug, it has far nobler origins. Since the 1960s, fentanyl has been used as a pain reliever when other opioids aren't strong enough. About 50 - 100 times more potent than morphine, fentanyl is used for cancer pain and thank goodness we have it. In the hands of a doctor who prescribes the right dosage, it is a safe and decent drug. I stress the word decent, because if you haven't seen a person screaming in pain, then you have no idea how relieving this pain is the height of decency and good medicine.

However, if the dose of fentanyl is too high it can cause death. Fentanyl binds with opioid receptors in the brain that give a sense of well being. The problem is that these same opioid receptors are found in the area of the brainstem that controls breathing. So, breathing - essential to living - can be shut down by this same sense of well being - everything is fine it says - no oxygen needed. A high dose of fentanyl gives people such a sense of well being that they forget to breathe.

That last sentence should give us all pause: smothering while surrounded by air. For those of us who write about murder, the focus is always justice - righting a wrong. The murderer is that vile, unsavoury creature to be chased down and brought to justice. However, not all methods of murder are equal and, I would argue, the method of murder is a character in itself. And you will find few viler methods of murder than fentanyl and smothering a victim in air.

So, back to my EE and his thoughts: ‘In a fentanyl naive patient, it can kill at much smaller doses, so a patch that is therapeutic for cancer patients, can kill someone who has never received fentanyl.’
As with all drugs, a tolerance develops. So, patches, clear and small, can be put on the skin of a victim who is fentalyn naive. EE thinks a nicotine patch or other patch could easily hide it and be removed after. Another intriguing method of delivery is a nasal spray - so perhaps a method of substituting that for Aunt Gertrude’s sinus irrigation? Would this come up on an autopsy? EE responds by saying, “At first glance it would look like someone had a heart attack and died.”

This also brings up the issue of getting fentanyl. Healthcare workers can pretend to give it and store it up. Even a couple of patches could kill an opioid naive victim. Or there is always the street market.
EE pointed out a very frightening and immensely writeable option: weaponizing of carfentanyl. This drug is 100X more potent than fentanyl, and as much as 10,000 times stronger than morphine. There is the frightening scenario of mass murder. Carfentanyl’s deadly potential comes as no surprise to the various countries that have experimented for decades with weaponizing this synthetic opioid.
Although never officially confirmed, it was reported that the Russian military pumped aerosolized carfentanyl into a theatre to incapacitate the armed Chechens who took more than 850 people hostage in 2002. In this event, more than 120 hostages died.

This has thriller written all over it. An aerosolized form can kill many - how about a chase to find the carfentanyl and those who plan to use it?

If a character can be a focus- so can the weapon of choice. There is something poignant about a noble drug, developed to ease the extreme suffering of patients, being turned into a killer. Worse, this killer can then massacre thousands. It is a noble character gone wrong. And the making of a crime novel. Or a thriller.

08 October 2017

Hospitals and Murder in One Step or Two


by Mary Fernando
“Hospitals are a great place to kill people” said MC, during our interview, “You can kill people in one-step or two.”
I would like to reintroduce MC – Mystery Cardiologist. He is a doctor who opens up blocked heart vessels with stents, puts in new heart valves and uses defibrillators to bring people back from the brink of death. He is also a voracious reader of mystery novels. What can be more delicious than a man who saves lives and ponders how to kill people? After he read my last blog, he felt it made him sound a bit ghoulish. So I would say, unequivocally, that he is a great guy. A wonderful husband, father, puppy owner who has never murdered anyone. He is safe to have over for dinner and introduce to your children.

Although his one-step and two-step murders are worth hearing about, what is equally as interesting is the character of a hospital murderer.
“There is nothing more creepy than someone like a nurse, doctor or paramedic who kills.” said MC. “That is the person with the most access to the patient, the knowledge to kill and the person everyone trusts.”
MC is right. The best person to know what drugs could kill and at what dosages, is a person who is medically trained. Further, they would know, for example, that in death, all cells break down, release sugar, and make an insulin overdose difficult to detect. However, a sample of the vitreous humour (fluid in the eye) could be a perfect way to catch this murderer.

Setting a murder in a hospital opens up avenues of murder but also allows for the creation of a complex character. What makes someone who has devoted a great deal of time educating themselves on how to save lives, who has a career of service to patients, turn themselves into a killer?  It could be a latent aggression finally coming to the fore, or it could be a character up against hard times who changes and becomes embittered. Or it could be a character who becomes a doctor or nurse to compensate for a sense of helplessness but gradually develops a sense of arrogance and invincibility, coupled with the a distain for those who are helpless like they once were.

One-step murders in hospitals can involve numerous methods. If someone is admitted to hospital for routine surgery such as an appendectomy or even for a heart attack that they survived, then finishing them off in hospital is an interesting option.

In hospital, people have IVs that provide a portal to inject them with something deadly. An overdose, of insulin, epinephrine, or potassium are some of MC’s suggestions.

A two-step murder is another intriguing option. Perhaps a murder attempt - a car accident, or bludgeoning on the head - has failed to completely kill off the victim. Bringing them to hospital provides an opportunity to try to kill them again.

Here a principle of reversing medical treatment is key. For example, if the victim has brain swelling after a thump on the head, in hospital they will give drugs to reduce swelling. They will also raise the head, using gravity to get rid of excess fluid in the brain. A visit during which the hospital bed is positioned to lower their head will send enough fluid into their brain to kill them. It is a gruesome way to die as the brain swells and pushes into your skull and again, it takes a certain twist of character to make a person trained to save lives, now take them.

Killing via an IV line is of course an option when a murder is botched and someone wants to complete the kill. Insulin injected could bottom out their glucose and put them into a deadly coma. Adrenaline could cause a fatal heart attack. And someone who has survived a murder attempt would be frailer and more susceptible to most drugs. Air injected into an IV is a perfect way to kill someone.

Once you have decided to set up a hospital murder, either in one or two steps, there is a wealth of internet info to look at. For example, if you are set on killing someone with air injected into an IV, I would like to recommend the blog by James J Murray, Prescription for Murder, as a great starting point. Another intriguing find is a book about murder by insulin.

For me, the intriguing part of my interview with MC was the hospital setting as an opportunity for murder with a necessity of developing the kind of complex character who would murder in a hospital. I truly think this hospital killer allows a writer to develop a character that embodies the saying: ‘As we get older, we just get more so.'

All our vulnerabilities, our fears and frailties, can be hidden under work and purpose. However, in the end we all become ourselves and more so. What haunts us eventually will consume us and that, in essence, is the making of a murderer.