'I perform autopsies. It's a privilege to try and uncover the full truth.'

Content warning: This story includes discussions of child loss that may be distressing to some readers.

For more than 30 years, Professor Jane Dahlstrom OAM has been conducting autopsies, uncovering much-needed answers for grieving loved ones.

It's a job she is incredibly passionate about, a job that requires a careful balance between science and emotion

Interestingly, it's also a job that fascinates a lot of people, many of us only seeing the realm of autopsies through the lens of crime drama TV shows and movies. But according to Prof Dahlstrom, there's far more to it than what's seen in popular culture.

"I think we're often falsely seen as quite cold and analytical. But in reality, we take incredible care. It's a privilege to try and uncover the full truth."

Watch: Parents who have lost a child answer questions. Post continues below. 

Video via YouTube. 

Prof Dahlstrom is a Perinatal Pathologist, specifically, meaning a large part of her work is around fetuses.

"We examine the tissues of the pregnancy, from the placenta, to the embryos and fetuses. It's about trying to uncover why the baby died. Could the problem recur in another pregnancy? Could it have been avoided or prevented? It's those sorts of questions that we desperately want to answer for the family, and that's always been a strong motivator," she tells Mamamia.


"It's understandably an incredibly difficult time for families. In Australia we have over 3000 perinatal deaths a year. And it can impact you. But you learn how to reframe death when working. I try not to focus on the fact I'm looking after a loved one who is deceased. That can be quite painful. Instead, I focus on trying to give answers to a family."

In 90 per cent of cases, answers are uncovered. Closure is given. But for the 10 per cent, Prof Dahlstrom says the family often finds some solace in the fact all efforts were taken to try to find an answer.

It was back in the early '90s that Prof Dahlstrom did her first autopsy as part of her training. She remembers it vividly.

Her first was an adult, a woman who was just 35 years old. She had died six weeks after delivering a baby, knowing her time was limited due to an aggressive and rare form of cancer.

"That woman was able to bring life into the world. The devastating thing was, of course, she would never see her baby grow up. That certainly left an indelible mark on me, in terms of my feelings for the job."


As she notes: "The word autopsy means to look within with one's own eyes. I prefer that word rather than post-mortem, which feels a bit cold."

What happens during an autopsy?

There are a variety of different types of autopsies, dependent on what's needed for the specific case, explains Prof Dahlstrom.

Limited autopsies, for example, look at one particular area of the body.

Another type is an external-only examination. But often, a complete autopsy is recommended to try to give the best chance of finding answers for the family and care team.

"This means looking inside the baby and examining the placenta. The placenta is like the diary of the pregnancy, it holds a lot of information. As part of the autopsy, we often take X-rays to look for bone abnormalities, we do clinical photos, and other special tests if needed," she explains.

"We then take a look inside the baby, using very small tools to take small samples of tissue which are then examined on a microscope to see abnormalities we cannot see with the naked eye. A biopsy may also be taken to look for inherited genetic problems."

Professor Jane Dahlstrom OAM. Image: Supplied.


"And if it's a forensic case [examining whether there is a crime related to the death], then we look to make sure there's no evidence of trauma."

The final part of the job comes down to Prof Dahlstrom gathering all the information from the various investigations performed, and coming to a conclusion with the evidence to give closure to the family and care team.

The emotional impact.

As a Pathology Awareness Australia ambassador, Prof Dahlstrom wants people to know this: there is heart, warmth and kindness behind the work they do.

"As a pathologist, sometimes you assume you won't come into contact with the families. But sometimes, the families want to meet me. It's a bittersweet feeling, seeing the closure it can bring them, but also the resounding loss."


In her career, Prof Dahlstrom has likely conducted over a thousand autopsies. 

"When it comes to doing examinations on babies, there's an added level of care that needs to be shown. When the babies come to us, we always wash their clothes, we take photographs and we ask the families to provide us with 'going away outfits' so we can dress the babies in those," she says.

"There are also nondenominational services we can do, plus we've got the Men's Shed in our area who make all these lovely ornate boxes for the babies. It's about recognising the loss these families have, and keeping the focus on that, rather than the science."

Ultimately, there's a lot of love that comes from working in the autopsy environment – even though death is a constant.

"It's a job I never anticipated I would do. Young me would be surprised. But I'm so glad I did it – it's now my passion."

If this has raised any issues for you or if you would like to speak with someone, please contact the Sands Australia 24-hour support line on 1300 072 637. 

You can download Never Forgotten: Stories of love, loss and healing after miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death for free here.

Feature Image: Supplied

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