Doctor Near-Death

Dissecting life's mysteries with forensic pathologist Janis Amatuzio

The photo is black and white, taken of Janis Amatuzio as a 27-year-old forensics fellow at the University of Minnesota. It is 1979. She is in training. She is standing in the county morgue, wearing a crumpled gown. On a slab below her, out of frame, rest the remains of a man whose last act was to lie down on the railroad tracks by the river. Amatuzio is reconstructing the dismembered body, making the pieces fit, trying to make sense of what happened. Over her shoulder is an assistant with a headlight, which partially illuminates her furrowed, empathic young face, and something else.

"I knew that I was either going to be in forensic pathology or [go into] internal medicine-oncology, because I have been so attracted to the mystery," says Amatuzio, now the 53-year-old founder of Midwest Forensic Pathology, PA, and the coroner for several counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The photo is framed on Amatuzio's office wall in the basement of Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids. The room is neat, but not obsessively so. Boxes full of manila folders and files dominate the far wall; medical gowns and packages of rubber gloves are over here, a desk strewn with notes and cassette tapes is there. Resting on shelves stocked with medical books are a few titles that wouldn't make it into most medical libraries, including Closer to the Light, Dr. Melvin Morse's bestseller about the near-death experiences of children.

In person, Amatuzio's eyes are different from those in the 26-year-old photo, or in the more recent color shot, tacked above her desk, of her and her dog. In the here and now, her eyes are preternaturally kind and somewhat unearthly, "piercing" if you must, so translucent and intense they could be embers from a sauna.

"I've had people come to me four or five years after a loved one has died, and they want to see [a picture of] them," she says. "One mother said she wanted to see her daughter. I said, 'She was killed in a car accident. Her face is bloody. Are you sure you want to see that?' She said, 'Don't you think I was there when she was born? Don't you think her face was bloody then?'"

Amatuzio's office performs 500 autopsies a year. Homicide, suicide, disease, natural cause, everything. A couple of times a day, she walks the underground tunnel from her office to the morgue, opens the cooler, and pushes a button that operates a lift that lowers a body down to the operating table. She tape-records her notes, takes photographs ands X-rays, examines fingernails for dirt, blood, or semen if it's a suspicious case, then makes a Y-shaped incision in the chest, looks at all the major organs, draws blood, cuts a flap in the back of the head with a small saw, folds back the scalp, and digs in.

Because she has put her hands in the dead and her heart into the living, Amatuzio has been on the front lines of what the rest of the planet is reckoning with more and more these days: a carousel of man-made and natural disasters, moving faster and faster, till death do us part. Pop culture is rife with C.S.I. this and Medium that, and real life is lousy with willy-nilly body counts, which suggests that we are all getting accustomed to, if not perfectly comfortable with, dancing with the grim reaper.

"I've begun to think that we as a society are evolving," she says. "I think we're on the edge of something great. I mean, I would hope it would be the fabled 'thousand years of peace.' I can't go home and turn on anything on TV and not see anything that doesn't have a forensic twist to it, and I'm starting to wonder if this isn't a metaphor, a subconscious searching, where, perhaps instead of us saying, 'What happened?' we're starting to say, 'What happens?'"

Amatuzio describes herself as a "lifelong seeker," but unlike so many who flail with various cure-alls and self-discoveries, Amatuzio is also a finder. Her cant is that of someone who operates on a higher plane, a scientist-slash-seer who assimilates everything she has learned and is now merely sharing her knowledge. She teaches forensics and crime at various police academies and colleges, but she's also an in-demand speaker and author on near-death experiences, the first of which she encountered as a little girl when her father, a physician, came back from an illness to report on the tranquility that awaits.

"I spent years counting bullet holes and tracing stab wounds and testifying and all of these things," she says. "But what I've really become interested in is what is left. The energy that is left. I've begun to study more physics, metaphysics, and energy. Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that is measurable can be measured; there are other qualities. I'm beginning to see that life is a continuum.

"People who have had these [near-death] experiences are different than the rest of us. They have a sense of peace that can't be disturbed. This one lady said to me, 'I know I'll see my son again. It's not if, it's when.' The words they all come back with are, 'You know, doc, everything really is all right.'

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