Alumna Profile: Mary Jumbelic, â€™83 | Searching for Answers
MAA - Fall 2006 - Mary Jumbelic '83
, '83, knows the face of death.
sees it almost every day.
On an August morning, Jumbelic, chief medical examiner of the Onondaga County Medical Examiner's Office in New York state, is already busy.
conducts an autopsy of a 94-year-old man broadsided by a tractor trailer.
She investigates the death of a young woman who has died after an asthma attack, and examines a woman in her 60s who accidentally set herself on fire while smoking in bed hooked to her oxygen tank.
"Never a good idea," says Jumbelic
, age 50.
caught on fire.
These are terrible tragedies."
For more than 20 years, Jumbelic
has made her
living studying the bodies of the deceased, probing and investigating to determine the cause of death.
has studied bodies of the young and old, rich and poor, black and white.
mission most often is to unmask the cause of death, other times it is to connect a disfigured corpse, bone fragment, or piece of flesh to a name; so loved ones can mourn and have closure.
has been tapped to work some of the world's most horrific disasters: Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Thailand tsunami the same year, the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in 2001, KAL Flight 801
in Guam in 1997, and in 1996 TWA Flight 800 on Long Island.
"I don't like death.
I don't welcome death.
But I live with it all of the time," says Jumbelic
"My work constantly reminds me of that thin line between life and death."
The line can be breached anytime, any place.
Families who have had loved ones die in disasters-manmade or natural-know this lesson all too well.
In 1996, Jumbelic
was called to work the makeshift morgue in the aftermath of TWA Flight 800.
pulled 12-hour shifts working to identify bodies, a gruesome task yet at times rewarding.
A daughter, searching for her
mother, identified the body only after investigators found her
mother's wedding ring.
"It was chilling," Jumbelic
The day after planes rammed the towers, Jumbelic
was at ground zero working to identify bodies.
For a month she
rode in a van from Queens with a handful of professionals including an anthropologist, evidence experts, and a photographer.
They were forced to pass through 10 security checkpoints before arriving in the city.
"There were fires still burning, smoke in the air, paper floating down out of the sky, wind blowing everything," she
"It felt like a war zone."
People brought to Jumbelic
and the others in the morgue pieces of bodies, fragments of skull, hair, and, on occasion, animal remains mistaken for human.
"I could not go back to New York City for three years after that experience," Jumbelic
"I saw hundreds of bodies," says Jumbelic
, who noted that the federal process for conducting autopsies and making identifications ran smoothly.
Jumbelic's fascination with death began when she
was 13 years old.
father, a coal miner and house painter, died after an operation.
"I saw myself as wanting to be a doctor at that time," she
Two years later, while in high school, Jumbelic
had a chance to spend a day with a professional of her
She was the only student in her class to choose the medical examiner's office.
"They hadn't had a student show up there in years," she
"They gowned me up and sent me into the autopsy room.
watched the pathologist perform an autopsy.
removed the heart and placed it in Jumbelic's
"That is where my interest began, the fascination with the human body," she
After graduating from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 1979 with a degree in biologic life sciences, she attended Maryland and graduated four years later.
was headed to Union Memorial Hospital
for an internship followed by training in general surgery.
But there was something about a career in general surgery that didn't excite Jumbelic
After talking with her
boyfriend, whom she
later married, she
decided to switch to pathology.
"I was really hooked," she
completed residency training in pathology at Union Memorial and Northwestern University
In 1987, she became a fellow in forensic pathology at the Cook County Office of the Medical Examiner and later deputy medical examiner.
In 1995, she was named deputy chief medical examiner at the Onondaga County Medical Examiner's Office in New York State, and became chief medical examiner in 1998.
She has sat on numerous boards and committees, including the Ground Zero Team, World Trade Center Recovery, Disaster Mortuary Operations Team, and the U.S. Medical Examiner, Forensic Analysis Team, Thailand Tsunami Victim Identification.
has written extensively on a variety of topics.
Titles of recent articles range from "Stun Gun Injuries in the Abuse and Death of a Seven-Month-Old Infant," to "Death by Compaction in a Garbage Truck."
, who is married and has three children, says the more she
studies death the more spiritual she
"I realize many times there is no good explanation for the moment that death occurs," she
"Why something happens at that moment remains unexplained.
That is what we are all striving to understand.
It's the fear of our own mortality."
"Maybe just seeing death in all of its faces has made it a grudging reality for me, that I realize it is a part of life, Jumbelic