Determining how a life has ended is what Etoi Davenport, M.D., does every day as a medical examiner for Maricopa County. Her work can deliver justice, provide answers and lend comfort to grieving families.
Vicki: What is the role of the medical examiner?
Etoi: A medical examiner is also known as a forensic pathologist. Our main goal is to determine the cause and manner of death. In Maricopa County, there are five manners: homicide, suicide, natural, undetermined and accidental.
Vicki: What’s the difference between the “cause” and the “manner” of a death?
Etoi: Say an elderly woman who has a history of cardiovascular disease is walking outside of her bank and a robber comes up and snatches her purse, then she suffers a heart attack right there and dies. Well, the cause of death will be coronary artery heart disease if that’s what I found in the autopsy. But the manner of death would be homicide.
Vicki: So you need information from others to get a picture of how someone died?
Etoi: It’s a puzzle and everybody has a piece of it. Law enforcement agencies sometimes help me. Not just law enforcement agencies but family members. Anyone who can give me any information about the decedent can help me. I know a lot of people watch “CSI” but this is not magic.
Vicki: Is it always a mystery?
Etoi: Sometimes it’s pretty obvious. But especially if it’s a child or a baby [the parents] might not know why their child died. If it’s infectious, that’s information we need to collect so the family can take the right precautions. [They may need to] seek genetic counseling, if that’s appropriate.
Vicki: Which cases are the toughest?
Etoi: I see a lot of motor vehicle accidents. Sometimes I see a very young teenager who was intoxicated…or children who were harmed. Those cases bother me more than children who died of natural causes—not that those don’t bother me. I have a child, so I can relate. But when it’s unnatural, it’s sometimes harder.
Vicki: How do you cope?
Etoi: You try to remain professional. You can’t become extremely emotional, because you have to do your job. If I’m a basket case, then how am I going to get it together to do this child’s autopsy and give [the family and authorities] the facts? That’s my job, to give them the facts, tell them what I found in the body and why [the death] might have occurred.
Vicki: You have a 5-year-old daughter. How do you talk to her about your work?
Etoi: She knows that mommy is a doctor and she knows that I look at people’s bodies. She does know about death.
Vicki: Because you deal with death and families all the time, do you have any tips for parents on how to tell kids about death?
Etoi: I don’t make up stories. When my daughter asks me about something, I figure that this is an opportunity to teach her something new. She’s asking about it—that means she’s interested. If I lie to her or don’t tell her anything about it, she will make up her own mind or listen to someone who might give her the wrong information.
Vicki: What would you like the public to know about what you do that we might not understand?
Etoi: Some of the things they show on TV are unrealistic and don’t occur, or very rarely occur in real life. It’s not an exact science, just like no part of medicine is an exact science. We do the best we can do with what we have.
Vicki: What has a profession centered around death taught you about life?
Etoi: People have different experiences in their life that make them appreciate their family. I think that my experiences really make me appreciate my husband and my daughter and my family. Because I can see how quickly it can all just go away. RAK