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The Making of a Medical Examiner

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

By Dr. Livia Cutty

The summer after my sister graduated high school, just as she was preparing to head off to college, she disappeared. She and another girl, actually. They both vanished from a beach party in our small North Carolina town. Their abduction sent Emerson Bay into a panic.

Every resident, neighbor, and friend looked for these two girls, large packs of volunteers walking shoulder-to-shoulder through the woods hoping to stumble across any clue that might help locate them. We held vigils, too, lighting candles late into the summer night in some strange show of faith that our girls would be returned to us.

This went on for two weeks, just long enough for me to secretly lose hope. And then Megan McDonald, the other girl who was taken along with my sister, resurfaced. She had escaped from a bunker hidden deep in the woods, ramrodding her way through the forest on a dark, rainy night until someone spotted her wandering on Highway 57.

My sister? She was never seen again.

That was last August. Back then I was finishing the fourth year of my anatomical pathology residency. I’d completed my undergraduate degree, endured four years of medical school, and had settled into residency prepared to spend my four-year stint learning how a disease affects the human body. Back in that old life, a cushy hospital pathology job waited in my future. Or maybe a teaching gig at the university. Then my sister disappeared and my priorities changed.

After my residency, I applied for a forensic pathology fellowship—a one-year program that would turn me into a medical examiner. My thinking was this: Someday, my sister’s body would show up in someone’s morgue. It would be up to a forensic pathologist to use his or her skills to uncover the clues my sister’s body left behind, and then hand those clues over to the authorities who might track down her killer. I wanted those skills, simple as that.

The following July, nearly a year after my sister went missing, I started my year of fellowship at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina. I also started reading the bestselling memoir that was sweeping the nation. It was the true story account written by Megan McDonald, the girl who disappeared with my sister.

Megan had miraculously escaped her captor, and her riveting story of survival was a blockbuster topping every bestseller list in the country.

The memoir bothered me, the whoring of such personal tragedy for monetary gain infuriated me, and the fact that the book never once mentioned my still-missing sister unnerved me.

It was about that time, on a hot Monday morning, that the body of a young man rolled into my morgue. That body changed my life forever. It changed Megan’s life as well, because after I completed the autopsy I began to question every page of her bestselling book. My biggest question: Was this hunk of three hundred pages a memoir, or pure fiction?

To find out how things transpired the summer I started my forensic fellowship, pick up #TheGirlWhoWasTaken. It’s a hell of a story. And the way things end will have you gasping like a brand new path fellow the first time a zipper rips down a body bag and their maiden corpse is dumped in front of them.

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