Final Say, Indeed
The Doctor You Hope Won’t See You Now: Westchester County Medical Examiner Dr. Millard J. Hyland
Photo by John Rizzo
As Westchester County's medical examiner, Dr. Millard J. Hyland is one doctor you don't ever want to have to see.
On average, how many cases does your office process each year?
We handle approximately one-third of all deaths in the county, about three thousand. By law, we technically deal only with unnatural, or apparently unnatural, causes of death.
What’s the difference between a medical examiner and a coroner?
A medical examiner must be an MD and is appointed to his position. A coroner is an elected position and can be anybody who runs for that office.
So the local bartender or auto mechanic could moonlight as the coroner?
True. Even you could be the coroner! It’s usually the area funeral director.
But how would Carmella, my hairdresser, know the first thing about performing an autopsy?
The coroner has to hire an MD to do his pathology work.
So the coroner has to outsource the “dirty work?”
Yes, although with this they can’t outsource as far as India.
Is this line of work different in practice than you envisioned?
Yes. It’s much more complex—not like you see on TV. If only the dead person could speak... It would make the job more interesting and more satisfying.
What reaction do you get at parties when people find out what you do for a living?
People tend to shy away from me. It may be my personality, or my appearance, but they tend not to be interested.
Do you think it’s because they’re afraid of death, and feel they’re staring death in the face when they see you?
It’s possible. People don’t like people who deal with dead bodies.
Is there anything that makes you squeamish?
Working on children and infants… I find that difficult.
Are you seeing any trends in the causes of death in the county?
There’s a steady upward trend of heart disease.
Has your work changed or informed your personal beliefs about life, death, or the hereafter?
Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that when you wake up in the morning you’re never sure you’re gonna be alive at the end of the day. We run into the poor soul who, while working, gets hit by a tree, or while driving to work skids and crashes and ends up on our table. It opens your eyes to how flimsy life is.
A personal question: cremation or burial?
I can’t get excited about that. Let my wife do what she wants. We have a burial plot, so I guess I’m going into the ground.
What made you pursue this line of work?
I was interested in pathology, which is the study and diagnosis of diseases. Medical examiners also deal with injuries. I found the combination of the two very interesting.
What’s the biggest challenge in your position?
Properly classifying a death. A medical examiner not only has to determine the cause of death, but he must also classify it as natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal, or undetermined.
Were you a fan of Quincy?
I watched Quincy once. That was enough.
What is the most rewarding aspect?
Figuring out, to your own satisfaction, what happened to the individual.
What do you think about all the CSI shows on today?
They’ve been very helpful to us, in that they’ve made the public aware of the value of DNA. However, there’s the flip side: the public always wants DNA now, even if there’s no DNA to be had.
What about the real-life forensic cases shown on TV, or the high-profile criminal cases like the O.J. trial. Do you tune in, or is it too much like work?
They interest me. I watch with a critical eye. I don’t always agree with what I see, but I think that’s probably true of any M.E. watching that sort of thing.
Any occupational hazards?
Usually we do not know the medical history of the individual we autopsy. He may have TB, HIV, God knows what. Sometimes we don’t even know their name, let alone their medical history. So there’s always that danger that you’re going to run across some disease you didn’t expect.
What happens when someone gets wheeled through the doors that you know personally?
It actually hasn’t happened too often. But I tend to stay away from the case when I realize [I know them]. I let someone else handle it; I want no part of it.
What’s the number one unnatural cause of death in Westchester County?
Accidents, including automobile crashes.
Do you see an uptick of deaths on holidays?
With suicides. But interestingly, the suicides don’t occur on the holidays, they occur either before or after.
What’s the most unusual death you’ve experienced?
I don’t want to go into gory detail…..I remember one individual who was murdered by having material forced into her nose and mouth. She was asphyxiated that way.
What health advice would you give to the people of Westchester?
Watch the fats! My real feeling is that the genes do more determination than your intake.
Is it hard to leave the work behind when you go home?
After all these years….no.
When you first started?
On the flip side, is there a danger of becoming too desensitized to death?
What is the biggest misconception about your line of work?
Exactly what we can come up with. For example, how long an individual has been dead. Being able to pinpoint that is a big misconception. All you can do is give a range —and I’ve been wrong enough times to be humbled.