Friday, May 04, 2012

Learning the secrets of the body

Photos: Murder victim Sowmya; Dr. Shirley Vasu
Dr. Sherly Vasu, the senior-most government forensic pathologist in Kerala, talks about her experiences, including the post-mortem of Sowmya, whose brutal rape and murder shocked the conscience of the people

By Shevlin Sebastian

“There were multiple nail marks below Sowmya's left collarbone,” says Dr. Sherly Vasu, forensic pathologist at the Thrissur Medical College. “There were indentations on the left wrist, caused by the right hand of the assailant. Sowmya's forehead was hit with great force against a hard vertical surface several times. It caused a fracture in the skull.” On her frontal lobe, there were several small haemorrhages. Sowmya also suffered cheek and jaw bone injuries. Fourteen teeth were broken. This led to severe bleeding inside the mouth. Then the assailant picked up Sowmya, took her to an isolated area nearby, and sexually assaulted her."

All this was deduced by Dr. Sherly by intently studying the body. This attack had rocked the state of Kerala. A quick recap: On February 1, 2011, Sowmya, a 23-year-old girl was travelling in the empty ladies compartment of the Ernakulam-Shoranur passenger train, when she was assaulted and raped by Govindachamy, who belonged to Tamil Nadu. Astonishingly, Govindachamy has a paralysed left arm. 

On February 6, Sowmya died of her injuries. In October, Dr. Sherly had testified in the court, explaining in detail at what she had observed in Sowmya's body. On November 10, a fast track court awarded the death sentence to Govindachamy.

“I felt a satisfaction when the accused was found guilty,” says Dr. Sherly, who is the senior-most pathologist in the state. For 30 years, she has been doing post-mortems.

So what is the method that she uses? “Before doing the post-mortem it is important to analyse the medical history of the patient,” she says. “Without knowing that, it is like searching for a needle in a haystack. There are a thousand causes of death.”

Thereafter, there is a close observation of the external body, to see whether there is bleeding, rigor mortis, or discolouration of the skin. “If there is jaundice, the skin will be of a yellow colour,” she says.

Then the actual post-mortem begins, by cutting open the scalp and taking the brain out.
It is porcelain white in colour. “When you hold it, the brain feels like a hardened jelly-like substance,” says Dr. Sherly. “It is surrounded by fluids. There are three layers covering the brain: the dura, arachnoid, and the pia mater. There may be bleeding under each section.”

According to Dr. Sherly life rests on a tripod of the brain, heart and lungs. “If one of them does not work, within minutes, the other two organs will fail,” she says. “So death can enter through the brain, cardiac or the respiratory portal.”

After taking out the brain, an incision is done from the chin to the pelvic area. All the organs are taken out: the tongue, neck, diaphragm, liver, intestines and kidneys. “All these are studied,” says Sherly. Finally, the body is washed, everything is put back in and the skin is sewn.

So what is the importance of a post-mortem? “According to the law, the Registrar General of India has a right to know the cause of the death of every individual,” says Dr. Sherly. “For criminal cases, we have to do forensic investigations. For every unnatural death, there has to be an investigation. If there is an accident in the house or the road, there is a right for compensation. When it comes to insurance claims, or negligence by doctors, a case can be filed only on the basis of a post-mortem.”

And for Dr. Sherly, the job has been fulfilling one. “I am doing a service to society,” she says. “I am also grateful to the police who render a lot of help. And in all these years, nobody has put any pressure on me, to modify my conclusions in favour of anybody.”

Asked whether she has nightmares at night, because of the nature of the job, Dr. Sherly laughs, and says, “I don’t get upset by what I do, even though I know that ordinary people don’t see all this,” she says. “I sleep peacefully at night because I am a deep believer in Guruvayurappan [Lord of Guruvayur]. I have a feeling I am in his palm. I get tranquility from that.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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