Whether removed surgically, traumatically, or via autopsy; tissue samples to be reviewed by pathology will be processed to facilitate creation of microscopic slides. Slides are sheets of glass with mounted slices of tissue cut so thin that light shines through. Through staining, the pathologist can use a microscope to identify characteristics of the cells based on their shape and color. The formation of the cells and relationships with adjacent cells is how pathologists make such a precise diagnosis. How the large pieces of tissue are processed to create diagnostic slides is an interesting process involving many steps and various laboratory professionals.
Sometimes when I meet new people and tell them what I do, their first question is something like “So you do autopsies on dead people?” My thirty second elevator pitch must need some work because their eyes usually glare over and they politely excuse themselves when I explain that, unless you work for a medical school or Coroner’s/ME Office, autopsies are a small part of the job. It’s a shame that most of the public’s only experience with pathology is the unrealistic dramatizations observed in movies or television. There are a large number of health care workers that also don’t understand that pathologists do so much more.
Q: If the Medical Examiner can do an autopsy and release the body to a funeral home for burial within 72 hours, why does it take a month (or more) to get the pathology report and death certificate?
The simple answer is: because that is how long it takes. Things are not always simple so here is a more complete answer.