The Autopsy Technician: Shana Milburn

January 2, 2013


Have you ever thought about the life of a Forensic Autopsy Technician? Neither had I… until I met Shana.


I wonder how she spends her evenings after a day of autopsies. I think about how she’s soon to be married, likes to cook, spend time with her family, and laugh. I think about my hard day and then remember, that at the exact same moment, Shana could be face-to-face with someone who has died.


I wish we could meet-up after work, Shana. I would love to buy you a beer and talk about your day…


where are you from?
Mt. Eden , Kentucky

what do you do?
I assist in performing forensic autopsies to aid in determining the cause and manner of death. I photograph wounds and injuries; assist in collecting trace evidence; assist in dissecting bodies including evisceration, performance of selected procedures, and removal of brain and spinal cord when indicated. I also retrieve tissues for testing as well as remove foreign bodies/material for evidentiary purposes.

what lead you to forensic examinations?
I had a teacher in high school who worked part-time as a deputy coroner/volunteer. He would, at times, tell the class about some of the cases and I became intrigued. Unfortunately, I was only 16 at the time and you had to be, at minimum, 21 to be considered for a deputy coroner position. It wasn’t long after my 21st birthday that I extended my interest in working for the department to the county coroner and within a year, I was the newest deputy and am still employed. During my employment with the Coroner, we had to attend an autopsy for training and we sometimes needed assistance in determining the cause and manner of death for our cases. I would attend the autopsies at the medical examiner’s office and was introduced to a new area of death investigation. Within a few years, a position opened for a Forensic Autopsy Technician, I applied, and was hired.

did you always know you wanted to be in this field?
Again, I was working full-time as an EMT and part-time as a deputy coroner and part of my training and job required me to view a postmortem exam. One of the autopsies that I had to attend was a GSW (Gun Shot Wound). During the exam, the path of the projectile had to be determined. I still remember to this day seeing the hot pink rods that were inserted into the bullet holes to aid in determining the pathway. Afterwards, and for some reason, I knew that I would work at the medical examiner’s office.

take us through a typical day at work.
I come in and often do not know what cases have arrived throughout the night. We review the case and proceed accordingly. If it is a child, homicide, or suicide by gunshot, we will begin with x-rays to locate projectiles and or other injuries. I will then assist in the external exam which documents the decedents clothing and external injuries or identifying characteristics and then begin the Y incision for internal examination. Dependent upon the case, we could do an “external only”, in situ (observing the organs in position), or a full post which includes the removal of organs and at times, the brain for closer observation by the forensic pathologist.

do you like what you do?  why?
UUUMMM…kidding. I do enjoy what I do. It is the gratification that I feel in knowing that I may have helped a family find closure in providing them with a cause and manner of death for their loved one. The simple fact that I was able to be a voice for a decedent such as a child that was abused and didn’t simply “fall off of a bed”. It is those cases that keep me doing what I do.

does work affect your personal life?
No. My work doesn’t affect my personal life simply because I don’t allow it.
My work stays at the exit and entrance door. When my day is over, it stays there until the next day but I wouldn’t be human to say that some cases didn’t creep into my thoughts.  I think I may be more attune to certain situations such as people riding motorcycles without a helmet, failure to wear seatbelts, and various other things that are generally overlooked. As my Mom says, “I can’t save them all”, but I have seen many situations where tragedy may have been prevented if people would have been a little more careful.

what is the hardest thing about your job?
The most difficult part of my job is seeing the people who die innocently. Ones who had no say about the end result and pass as a result of someone else’s actions. Those are the cases that hold a special place in my heart.

what was your most unusual case?
Well that depends on your definition of unusual. There is one case that stands out and it had all of the elements that many would want to read about—love triangle, erotic sex, drugs, and bondage. Basically, one lover was stabbed, shot, bound with ropes, and placed in a plastic storage bin. The suspects then covered the body with 50lbs of lime and buried the container in the basement of the home. Unfortunately for the suspects, the body was found, they were caught, and the lime acted more as a preservative and odor barrier than a catalyst for decomposition.

what’s the most common?
The most common type of case? The most common type of case that comes through our office is accidents. This is followed by natural deaths and suicides.

how do you feel after you’ve cut open a body, cause of death has been determined, then justice isn’t served?
Many times I question our judicial system and wonder how people can walk away with little or no jail time. Even if justice isn’t served, I know that I did everything that I could  to aid the pathologist and investigators in seeking answers for prosecution purposes.

do you ever cry at work?  think of quitting?  do the conditions of the bodies ever make you sick?
I cannot say that I have cried at work. By no means am I saying that I wouldn’t, or am unemotional. I just never have. As for quitting, I would be dishonest to say that the thought hadn’t crossed my mind a time or two…OK, numerous times. Typically it’s when we have several cases and nothing seems to go as expected. It’s just frustrating. Some conditions do make me sick. A decomposed body is NASTY…They are often green, bloated, have maggots, skin slippage, and the odor sticks in your clothes and hair.

what do you want people to know about your job?
That it isn’t as portrayed in Hollywood and the realization is that people often die of causes other than high profile or exotic murders. The cases we perform are about the people and not simply the crime. Not to mention that in some states, there is a coroner and a medical examiner system and the two are different.

what would you do if you could choose a different career?
If I could choose a different career, I would be a homicide detective. That’s why I found it funny that Leah gave my name to you. The only reason that I have not pursued such a career is that I don’t want to serve the time as a street officer first. I like to cut to the chase. However, I do understand that every detective has to do their time on the streets before going into homicide and I respect their commitment and dedication to the force.

what makes you happy?
Completing my to-do list (slightly obsessive compulsive I know). Anything surrounding Halloween, silver jewelry, making people laugh, and my family.

you’re taking much needed time off.  what will you do?
Cook, cook, and cook. My fiancé and I love to cook (getting married 10-08-2011) and I don’t really have to go anywhere other than home to relax. Give me a sunny summer day, a comfortable seat, a grill, family and friends and I am content. That’s how I plan on spending my more than needed time off.

hollywood comes calling, which of your work experiences will they recreate?
This is a difficult question because there are a plethora of shows revolving around police, medical examiners, and my work environment. I feel as though they have covered most every base imaginable whether accurately or with the infamous Hollywood spin. Again, we have the cases involving heinous crimes. Crimes that include exotic sex acts gone wrong, brutal murders, drugs, and every other aspect that sells a movie or book.

what are you really good at?
Being a friend. Or so I am told. But in all honesty, this is a difficult question for me to answer about myself. I am an organized person with a daily planner that I cannot live without. So, by default, I guess I am really good about being organized. And, did I mention, I am a good cook.

what inspires you?
My Mom. She successfully provided a “normal”, loving life for my brother and me as a single mother. Her ambition, hard work, and love for us inspired and continues to inspire me to never be complacent.

what do you collect?
I like to collect cookbooks and they MUST have pictures. I have some of my grandmother’s cookbooks that I love looking through because I can always tell which recipes she liked to fix. The pages are always splattered with food!