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Forensic pathologists preventing death, not just explaining it

Rex Barber • Jul 11, 2012 at 9:35 PM

Karen Cline-Parhamovich did not originally intend to pursue a career in medicine, but the recently appointed chief medical examiner for Tennessee became instantly interested in the field after viewing an autopsy in college.

The autopsy was part of a criminal justice course she took in her fourth year of undergraduate studies at Kent State University in Ohio.

“And when I saw that I knew that was the career I needed to be doing,” Cline-Parhamovich said in a recent interview.

Cline-Parhamovich is a board- certified forensic pathologist today working at East Tennessee State University’s College of Medicine, where she became director of the division of forensic pathology in 2010. She will continue working at ETSU while maintaining an office in Nashville for her duties as chief medical examiner.

When she decided to go into medicine she did not know that forensic pathology existed.

“It just never occurred to me,” she said. “I wasn’t from a family of physicians. I knew I was interested in criminal justice and I was interested in how the human body worked. It just seemed that all the little things I was interested in clinical pathology touched on in some fashion.”

Forensic pathology is a subspecialty of medicine and part of the job involves dealing with unexpected or violent death, but other parts include participating in efforts to prevent injury or death.

There are only 400 forensic pathologists in the nation and not all are practicing.

“We’re the first line of medical professionals that can recognize trends within injuries,” Cline-Parhamovich said.

Patterns of death and injuries caused by drugs, consumer products and infectious diseases are all usually first seen by forensic pathologists, because these are the people who do autopsies.

Forensic pathologists were instrumental in developing the Back to Sleep campaign that educated parents and other caregivers about the importance of placing infants to sleep on their backs to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, SIDS rates have declined by 50 percent since the campaign began in the mid-1990s.

As the chief medical examiner for Tennessee, Cline-Parhamovich will be responsible for overseeing the entire medical examiner system and ensuring post-mortem exams are done in a uniform manner that provides correct information.

After Kent State, she went to Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. She did a clinical internship at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, Ohio. Cline-Parhamovich then did a four-year anatomic and clinical pathology residency at Virginia Commonwealth University/Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. She completed subspecialty training as a forensic pathology fellow at the University of New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque.

She is going on her fifth year as a practicing forensic pathologist, though she has been in training for 17 years.

Cline-Parhamovich said she really enjoys her job.

“I love that I get to use my medical training every day. I get to use all of my medical training,” she said. “I never explicitly set out to become a chief medical examiner. What I set out was to become the best forensic pathologist I could become. It’s a continuing process.”

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