9 On Your Side: Inside the medical examiner's office - WNCT

9 On Your Side: Inside the medical examiner's office

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GREENVILLE, N.C. -

It's a tough job but someone has to do it.

Medical examiners are at the forefront of some of the most high-profile cases but very few people actually get to see what they do.

The work never stops at the morgue at Vidant Medical Center. Roughly 600 autopsies are performed there every year. 9 on your side's Kristen Hunter got exclusive access to what happens behind the scenes.

She has more than 40 years of experience in Forensic Pathology and she's not stopping. After all, Regional Medical Examiner, Dr. MGF Gilliland says it's her calling.

"I was a kid in high school and read a really neat book on the subject of death investigation. And you can figure these things out from small bits of information. I thought I could do that and I've had a chance to do that," she said.

Just like the TV shows, every day, Dr. Gilliland stares the different faces of death right in the eye. The unexplainable circumstances, the murders, the tragic accidents.

But a day in the life for our Medical Examiner is hardly what you see on CSI.

"Not too many people have been inside a Medical examiner's office, where you work," said 9 on your side's Kristen Hunter.

"That's right," said Dr. Gilliland.

"There's a lot going on in here," Hunter said.

"There is. There are the tools of the trade because a part of what we do is examine and investigate," Gilliland replied.

To put it bluntly…this is where the dead people go.

"With all this technology are toe tags a thing of the past?" asked Hunter.

"Oh no, the late, great toe tags… that is one of the things we do that's part of our checklist. Be sure that there is a toe tag to properly identify the deceased individual because they don't speak for themselves anymore, they don't say I'm John Doe," Dr. Gilliland said.

Although they can't physically speak, the bodies in the morgue still tell a story. A mystery of sorts. And it's Dr. Gilliland's job to figure it out.

Before she's able to do an internal exam, she has to do an external exam. She takes lots of photos and documents any distinguishing marks or bruises she might find. It's a process that Dr. Gilliland says usually takes about 45 minutes.

"At that point we are ready to do the internal examination," she said. "We open the chest plate, we open the whole body and we also open the head using a [circular] saw."

In some cases Dr. Gilliland will test for drugs and alcohol in the system, but she'll have to wait longer than a commercial break to get the answers.  

"Some of the little vials have a little bit of powder in them to help preserve the sample," she said as she showed 9 on your side's Kristen Hunter the toxicology test.

Gilliland says it usually takes 6 to 8 weeks to get results back.

On the other side of the autopsy room wall…more mysteries…more answers.

There's a storage room full of tissue samples. There's even a space for drying evidence.

It's more than a job for Gilliland, it's a passion.

"I think some people think this sounds like a really morbid job. So what keeps you coming back every day?" asked Kristen Hunter.

"The inquiry. Finding out what happened to people and letting other people know," Gilliland said.

But she admits that doesn't mean it's easy.

"There are cases that are sad. There are cases that just don't make sense. I can at least find out what happened but I sure can't say there's a good reason why."

There's more to Gilliland's job than autopsies. Besides the paperwork and research involved in determining a cause of death, Medical Examiners are also called in to testify as expert witnesses in court.

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