When you’re at a party, how do you explain what you’ve examined and what the result was?

“Autopsy, examining or confirming the cause of death, is becoming less and less common, also in the Netherlands. One of the main reasons why clinicians and relatives don’t consider a post-mortem examination to be necessary is that they often think they know why the patient died, because they trust in modern advanced diagnostic techniques. But in around one in five cases, an autopsy reveals the cause of death to be different from what the doctor thought.

“Another reason is that, for religious reasons or having watched CSI-type television series, relatives are afraid of the autopsy damaging the body. You can solve that problem with the Minimally Invasive Autopsy, an autopsy via MRI, CT and biopsies of organs and the brain. Our research has shown it to be an equally good alternative to the conventional autopsy1.”

How will your thesis improve the world?

“I hope that my research will contribute to the realisation that autopsies are important. If autopsy percentages rise, that’s good for quality control in healthcare. I was very concerned that in one in five cases, a different cause of death was established following a post-mortem.

“When someone is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and dies, an autopsy can also establish the extent to which the treatment had had an effect. And it can be very relevant for a family, for example, to determine whether someone had any genetic defects. You may not be able to save the deceased, but you can help the relatives who may have the same defect.”

What was your lowest point in recent years?

“I am a fanatic softball player and I suffered a serious concussion after being hit by a ball. I spent months recovering from it. It was frustrating because it meant that I couldn’t do very much. Hour-long meetings were already too long, and by the end I’d be unable to say a full sentence. Sometimes working for two hours was too much, and I’d have to sleep for two days. Luckily I was given all the time I needed to recover and to set my boundaries.”

Which of the people in your acknowledgement had you not considered would be so important beforehand?

“My Professor of Pathology was hugely involved in my research. During my holiday, he would be doing biopsies in the evenings, despite the fact that he was already retired. I designed my acknowledgement in the form of a word searcher, with the names of everyone I wanted to thank. Such a lot of people were involved in the research that I could never have included them all in a written acknowledgement. In this way, there’s no hierarchy and I haven’t missed anyone out. The solution of the puzzle is related to my research and my love for sport, so I’d actually hoped that there would be a question about it when I received my doctorate.”

The cover

“The pencil drawing on the cover and flyleaves were done by a friend from secondary school, who’s been making amazing drawings for years. She had to do my cover. I particularly love the silhouettes. My thesis is about autopsies, a puzzle that tells you why the components in the body suddenly stopped working together. The main components are the organs, because they are usually the cause of death. You can see that in the illustration; the bodies have an organ as a head and you are constantly discovering something new.”

  1. At a conventional autopsy, a Y-incision is made from the shoulders to the waist to reveal the organs ↩︎