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Final call

By Sally Wolff-King

Story Photo

Forensic pathologist Randy Hanzlick deals with his share of attention-grabbing deaths as director of the Fulton County Medical Examiner's office, but his day-to-day work involves homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths. Photography by Jack Kearse

Randy Hanzlick found his calling, thanks to a good teacher. When he was a young pathology resident at Ohio State, he encountered Nobuhisa Baba, who ran the university hospital's autopsy service and was a forensic pathologist for the coroner. Baba immersed the young resident in the daily life of a forensic pathologist, and Hanzlick has never looked back.

Today Hanzlick serves as an Emory pathology professor and directs the Fulton County Medical Examiner's office. He has written books on investigating death and the role of forensic pathology in criminal cases and helped develop guidelines for his chosen profession. In 2009, the American Academy of Forensic Science presented him with a Distinguished Fellow Award, and he has received both the Lifetime Service Award and the President's Award from the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Although television and film have popularized and romanticized his profession, Hanzlick believes that his calling can help bring justice to the deceased and give them a final measure of dignity. High impact cases—those that evoke public interest or are challenging to figure out—seem to surface every few years. Hanzlick has worked, for example, on understanding the death of a young girl with multiple extremity fractures apparently incurred during an attempted exorcism and  a dismemberment case in which the perpetrator attempted to get rid of body parts in a kitchen garbage disposal.

But Hanzlick's day-to-day work involves fewer of these attention-grabbing deaths and more of the regular homicides, suicides, accidental, and unexpected natural deaths that cross his door. In Fulton County, the number of homicides has dropped in the past few years, but the pathologist can remember when he would see as many as 300 in a year. In 2012, the county had 126 homicides, an average of one every three days, with many of them involving young adult men. Last year Hanzlick saw as many suicides as he's ever encountered, and he says that number may be as high or higher this year.

Training goes hand in hand with his investigations. Medical students from Emory and Morehouse routinely visit the medical examiner's office for lessons in forensic pathology, and Hanzlick typically trains one forensic pathology fellow a year through a one-year fellowship, jointly sponsored by Emory and the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office. Emory pathology residents also typically spend at least one month in his office during their anatomical pathology training.

For hospitals and agencies, Hanzlick does on-the-spot training. Personnel from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory stationed at nearby Fort Gillem arrive periodically to familiarize themselves with autopsies, as do military personnel soon to be deployed to the Middle East for body recovery. Trauma surgeons and nurses from Grady Memorial Hospital (where Hanzlick directed the autopsy service for seven years) as well as emergency medical technicians also pass through his doors to receive autopsy training. 

Hanzlick passes on the advice of his own mentor to his students: "Leave no stone unturned."

Related Links

Randy L Hanzlick, MD

Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office

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