Picking the brain of a medical examiner

Written by Leigh Neely

With encouragement from her parents, Wendy Lavezzi became a registered nurse after high school, but later she realized there was more she wanted to explore.

As a child growing up in Coal City, Illinois, Wendy Lavezzi had dreams of being a movie star. She wanted to act, sing, and dance. “I was in all the school plays and very outgoing, the class clown,” she says.

However, her parents thought she’d do better as a nurse or teacher. She had three friends going to nursing school, which made it the most attractive option. She attended St. Joseph Hospital in Joliet, Illinois, and was a registered nurse for 15 years, the last seven as an intensive care nurse.

“That’s when I realized I’d like to know the rest and decided to go to medical school,” Wendy says. “I thought I would be an ER physician, a dermatologist, or a vascular surgeon.”

When she took a four-week rotation in pathology, however, she discovered the thrill of finding what’s under the microscope. She saw a colon and was fascinated. “This was something I had not seen as a nurse,” she says.

She asked the instructor what colon cancer looked like, and he said that lesson wouldn’t come until the following year. When she told him she wanted to see it now, he was surprised but accommodated her request since he was a colon cancer researcher.

“I thought it was beautiful, and he said, ‘You’re going to be a pathologist.’ He was pleased,” Wendy says, “because sometimes it’s hard to find who’s really serious about pathology and who just wants to see a dead body.”

That was the turning point for Wendy, and she set her path on forensic pathology. Through a friendly customer she saw every morning at Dunkin Donuts, she was introduced to the head of the morgue, who was happy to show her around. That afternoon she came back and watched her first autopsy performed by Dr. Barbara C. Wolf.

“She realized I was serious, and she knew my nursing background would help because I would know about the tubes and equipment,” Wendy says. “She became my mentor and began taking me to crime scenes.”

Wendy became board-certified in anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, and forensic pathology. She is an Eta Lambda graduate of Providence College in Rhode Island, an Alpha Omega Alpha medical school graduate of the Albany Medical College, and she completed her residency at Albany Medical Center in New York.

Her training continued with a fellowship in forensic pathology at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office in Chicago, and she remained there as deputy medical examiner until 2008, when she joined the District 5 Medical Examiner’s Office in Leesburg as the deputy chief medical examiner. Once again, she was working with her mentor, Barbara, who is district medical examiner.

Wendy also is the Lake-Sumter Medical Society’s president, a position she was hesitant to accept at first.

“I’m not a clinician, but I’ve been on the board for many years,” she says. “I decided to accept. It also makes me president of We Care, for which I’m proud to work with support and fundraising. This organization provides specialty care for uninsured adults. Surgeons, GI physicians, oncologists, and many others volunteer their services.”

Wendy says she feels very positive about the future of health care in America: “I believe our country is going in the right direction.”

As a medical examiner, she feels the biggest health issue is the opioid crisis. “It’s a very big problem with dramatic consequences in all five counties we serve.”

The District 5 Medical Examiner’s Office provides services for Lake, Sumter, Hernando, Citrus, and Marion counties.

“Gov. Scott dealt with the pill mills, but we all know drug addicts will find drugs wherever they can,” Wendy says. “Now the open market is coming from China and Mexico, and the heroin is tainted with fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine. Sometimes they use carfentil, and it’s 10,000 times more potent. Drug addicts are playing Russian roulette. They never know what’s in that bag they’re taking.”

She mentioned she would perform an autopsy that day on a 25-year-old who came in because of a drug overdose. “With older people, they’re addicted to pain pills, so age is not an issue.”

Wendy performs around 4,000 autopsies a year and relies heavily on families, local doctors, and the team of investigators working with District 5 to determine cause of death. There are eight investigators working with the department, some of them remotely to cover Hernando, Citrus, and Marion counties. Lake and Sumter counties’ investigators work in the offices on Pine Street in Leesburg with the medical examiners. There are currently three examiners in District 5, but a search is on for a fourth.

One particular case from years ago sticks with Wendy. A 6-year-old boy from Lake County died suddenly, and his mother was determined to know exactly what happened.

“She called every day saying, ‘Please don’t make this undetermined. I have to know what happened.’ She provided information, and I worked closely with the child’s doctor, and we kept testing,” Wendy says. “Finally, I referred her to genetic testing, and we found it was a mutant gene that caused malignant hyperthermia.”

This is a rare condition normally caused by a severe reaction to certain medications used for anesthesia. This means anesthesiologists are always prepared with an antidote, but this was not the case. With malignant hyperthermia, the muscles become rigid, causing a raging fever up to 110 degrees F. This causes complications throughout the body and, if untreated, results in death. Working with the Malignant Hyperthermia Association, Wendy solved the mystery of the boy’s death.

Since the problem is genetic, the other three children in the family were tested, and two of them also have the mutant gene. Now, they are always prepared, carrying cool packs and avoiding strenuous exercise that might overheat their bodies.

“The mother and I went around to all the area hospitals to warn them to have the antidote on hand in the event one of the children came into the emergency room,” Wendy says. “It was one of my most rewarding cases. She and I are still friends.”

When she must deal with a homicide, she feels the medical examiner’s office always makes a difference, too. However, work like this has its dark side.

“It doesn’t give me any joy to send someone to prison,” Wendy says. “In my mind, it’s a no-win situation. The initial crime was a senseless act, and the results of that are not good.”

One of her favorite parts of the job is providing information to hospitals, doctors, and law enforcement through lectures.

“I really enjoy going around to hospitals and interacting with doctors and others,” she says. “I guess lecturing is where I use my ‘movie star’ skills.”

After work, she spends a lot of time with friends.

“I’m very social, and being a medical examiner has made me understand what’s important,” Wendy says. “People are what’s important in life. My life outside work centers around building relationships. I love going to museums and restaurants. What makes your life worth living is spending time together.”

About the author

Leigh Neely

Leigh Neely began her writing career with a weekly newspaper in the Florida panhandle, where she not only did the writing but delivered the papers to the post office and dispensers. She has been writing ever since for a variety of newspapers and magazines from New Jersey to Leesburg. With her writing partner, Jan Powell, Leigh has published two novels as Neely Powell.

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