Q&A with Dr. James Caruso, Denver County Medical Examiner
When did you know you wanted to become a medical examiner?
I knew in high school that I wanted to be a physician. While in medical school I strongly considered Pathology as a specialty, but I first had to serve as a primary care physician in the Navy for 5 years before beginning my Pathology training. I completed my Pathology training at Duke University Medical Center and served as a hospital Pathologist before completing a fellowship in Forensic Pathology. I thought Forensic Pathology would be the perfect way to combine my experience in Military Medicine with Pathology. I served as a Forensic Pathologist in the military for 12 years before retiring from the Navy and taking the Chief Medical Examiner job in Denver.
Do you have a personal tie to organ and/or tissue donation?
My father was infected with Hepatitis C Virus as the result of a blood transfusion in the 1980s. He eventually developed liver failure and received a liver transplant, which gave him an additional 10 years of life and the opportunity to meet his grandchildren. Also, as a pathologist, I routinely looked at pre-transplant biopsies and clinical test results as well as explanted organs. Duke has an extremely busy organ transplant program.
Why is donation and transplantation is so important to you?
The supply of transplantable organs is unfortunately limited by the list of eligible and consenting donors. The demand far exceeds the supply and people die every day while waiting for a transplant. I watched my father’s condition deteriorate as he awaited a second liver as Hepatitis C ravaged the new liver over time. In the end, my father was too ill to survive another transplant because the limited supply of organs dictates that potential recipients move up the list very slowly. As a perform an autopsy on a young person who died of trauma I frequently reflect on how pristine the organs appear and that they would be lifesaving for someone on the transplant list.
What is the one thing you would want others to know about your work?
Despite the usual jokes or comments about how morbid it is, my work is extremely important in providing families with answers and closure, assisting law enforcement with the investigation of deaths that occurred due to criminal acts, and identifying potential safety issues or threats to the public welfare. I also provide answers to my clinical colleagues who were taking care of the decedent in a medical setting.
What are you most proud of?
I spent nearly 30 years in the military and served on ships and overseas including Iraq and the Persian Gulf. I am also very proud of the two daughters that my wife and I have raised. They have lived all over but have fallen in love with Colorado.
What do you like to do in your free time (hobbies)?
I like to travel and fish as well as work out. I am a rabid hockey fan and season ticket holder for the Avalanche.