Reasons for an autopsy
An autopsy is a medical exam of the body after a person has died. The purpose of an autopsy is to answer questions about the patient’s illness and cause of death. It might also provide valuable information that could help doctors and researchers understand disease, identify new treatments, and improve quality of care. Sometimes, an autopsy will find that the illness was genetic or caused by something in the patient’s surroundings. These findings might affect other family members. We cannot guarantee that the cause of death will be found. However, the autopsy results will be offered to you.
Consent for an autopsy
You may request or may be asked to give permission (consent) for an autopsy to be performed after your loved one has died. You can request and consent to an autopsy if you are the next of kin or the person legally in charge of the patient.
To allow an autopsy to be done, you must sign an autopsy consent form. In this form you will be asked to state your relationship to the person who has died. Also, you will be able to allow a full autopsy or limit the autopsy to exclude certain organs or areas of the body.
A full (unlimited) autopsy includes a doctor examining the head, thorax (chest), and abdomen with all the organs contained within those areas and any other area of the body as needed. A limited autopsy will only include the areas of the body that you give consent for the doctor to examine. Also, you will have the option of allowing the hospital to keep tissue samples for scientific purposes, such as learning more about disease and improving patient care.
What happens in an autopsy
The autopsy is done as soon as possible after death. It is performed in an atmosphere of dignity and respect. It usually lasts 2 to 4 hours. After that time, the hospital will notify the funeral home and release the body.
The autopsy is performed by a pathologist (path AH low jist), a doctor trained to look at and in the body for clues about the cause of death. The internal organs are examined and tissue samples are looked at under a microscope.
Normally, the organs that are removed from the body may be kept to help find the cause of death and for teaching and research purposes. Or, the hospital staff will dispose of the organs in a respectful way. When you consent for an autopsy, you may request that the organs be returned to the body. In that case, only small pieces of each organ will be kept as part of the hospital files. If you do not wish for St. Jude to use this tissue for research purposes, you can make that known on the consent form.
An autopsy is done in a way that does not affect burial or cremation. You can still hold an open casket funeral. None of the autopsy marks can be seen after the funeral home staff embalms and dresses the body. The hospital staff can arrange to perform the autopsy more rapidly if burial is planned soon after the patient’s death.
The autopsy report
The first results from the autopsy often are ready in 2 to 3 days. A final report may take several weeks, since detailed studies are performed on tissue samples. Within a month after the final report is complete, you will be offered a meeting to discuss the findings. We prefer to do this in person, but it can be done by telephone. The goal is to give you a summary of the pathologist’s findings and to attempt to answer any questions you might have. The autopsy results will be shared with the medical team so all can learn from the findings.
Your child’s doctor can answer your questions about an autopsy and can discuss any concerns that you might have. The nursing staff, your social worker, your chaplain, and the Child Life staff are here to help support you in making this hard decision during this difficult time.
This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.
St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.
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