Dr. Raquel Fortun – dead bodies talk

“What is the dead body saying?” That was how Dr. Raquel Fortun answered when I asked about her profession. What is it like to be a forensic pathologist, and be with cadavers most of the time? She had just returned to the Philippines after giving up a successful career in the USA and was my guest at “Krus na daan”, a daily radio program I hosted at DZRJ, some 28 years ago. Raquel Fortun must have been in her thirties when she heard the Motherland’s urgent call that made her fly back to where her services were most needed.

A dead body talks to you, Dr. Fortun told me, as naturally as a train of thought. I heard her say that again during a recent interview on YouTube. The family of a dead “middle man” involved in the murder of radio commentator Percy Lapid had asked for an “independent autopsy” after he was rushed to the hospital where he expired in 30 minutes. Dr. Fortun commented: “The medical information needs a thorough review–was he under medication? Why was he rushed to the hospital in the first place? One must always keep an open mind because the cause of death may not have been natural.”

There were similar requests from relatives of some victims of a past administration’s anti-drug war when the police declared that they had died of natural causes. During the same interview, Dr. Fortun described how she examined the skeletal remains: A toothless skull is a telltale sign of abject poverty; bones bearing bullet holes hint at the manner of death, ripped and bloodied garments should not be thrown away ( many were) as these reveal nasty secrets. In life and death, those victims were overstuffed with woe, sauced in heartache, poverty and impunity. She listens to them all and their plight strengthens Dr. Fortun’s resolve to continue despite all odds. Evidently, compassion is an essential virtue for forensic pathologists.

The core of the problem, asserted Dr. Fortun, is that we do not have a system that automatically kicks in when needed, but other Southeast Asian countries suffer from the same deficiencies. She hinted that this may have something to do with colonial legacy because, she has noticed, those colonized by the British have workable systems in place. In the 28 years that she has practiced in this country, the majority of autopsies she has seen do not pass muster. Our standards are still so poor; there are autopsy reports that are only a page long. Dr. Fortun revealed: “The worse is when they pretend that an autopsy was done, but the report is not reflective of the body, meaning to say this was not examined at all, so where did the findings come from?”

Apparently, most autopsy reports are fraught with flaws as these are done hurriedly because a death certificate has to be produced, so these are prepared and certified by the same person. As a result, mistakes are neither detected nor corrected. “I am doing a lot of reviews of death certificates and these are really deplorable. That is why people ask for an ‘ independent autopsy’. But, why would you want an ‘independent’ autopsy? Death is a health concern, so it should not be done by the police, but by the Department of Health; that should give you your ‘independence’.” According to law, an autopsy requires permission from the next of kin, the chief of police, the mayor and Department of Justice. As changes cannot be made on the fly, Dr. Fortun said we need to update that law. In my opinion, we should decolonize not only that law about autopsies but many others as well.

Because there are no refrigerated morgues, corpses are taken to funeral parlors, a great number of which are not equipped with refrigeration. To delay decomposition, embalmers introduce chemicals even before autopsies are performed. Said Dr. Fortune: “The big question is, will there still be suitable samples of blood and urine for examination? After chemicals are introduced into the body by the embalmers, it is too late to perform forensic toxicology.“

Today, Dr. Fortun is the head of the Department of Pathology at the University of the Philippines where she gives classes on forensic pathology and toxicology, subjects that most medical schools ignore. She has crafted a list of “must knows” that medical students should master. For example, one must learn to meticulously look for clues in any kind of scene or situation; have paper bags ready to wrap and seal the hands of victims as these have a lot of clues; get rid of cultural fixations, especially the “pwede na yan” mentality.

Strangely enough, there are only two forensic pathologists in the Philippines and they are both women– Dr. Raquel Fortun and Dr. Ma. Cecilia Lim. Will their tribe increase?