Solving Death’s Puzzles

With an inquisitive mind, Bruce Hyma ’78 serves as chief medical examiner of Miami–Dade County

by Lynn Bolt Rosendale ’85
Summer 2013

A miracle happens in our lives every day, according to Bruce Hyma '78: We wake up.

“I’m amazed every day that we’re alive,” said Hyma. “I’m amazed that we wake up every morning, that we function the way we do; it’s miraculous really.”

Hyma speaks from a unique perspective. As chief medical examiner of Miami–Dade County, he is fully aware of the intricacies of our bodies and what can go awry. “Psalm 139: 14 says, ‘we are fearfully and wonderfully made.’ When you study all of the body systems and organ systems and biochemistry that go on in a body, you see the truth in that verse. It’s amazing that things don’t go wrong more often.”

In Miami–Dade County, things occasionally do go amiss. There are roughly 11,000 to 12,000 deaths a year that end up under the purview of the medical examiner department. Sudden, unexplained deaths make up the majority of those, but another 30 to 35 percent are accidental, homicide or suicide.

Hyma and his staff of 78 are responsible for determining the cause. “Forensic pathology resolves very practical questions: How and why do people die?” said Hyma. “It also assists other disciplines of finding out who’s responsible.” It was the commonly indisputable nature of pathology that drew Hyma to this field of medicine.

Getting started

He was first introduced to it following his sophomore year at Calvin. “My father had a friend back home who needed help in the morgue during the summer and on weekends. He couldn’t find anyone to help, particularly with autopsies,” said Hyma. “He hired me as his lab technician; I could never have imagined getting an opportunity like that.”

Hyma worked there throughout his tenure at Calvin, graduating in 1978. “I had experience having assisted in probably 25 to 30 autopsies,” he said. “Going back on the weekends and during the summer, I was able to quickly see the application of what I was learning in school; it was a natural fit.”

While in medical school at Wayne State University, Hyma connected with a local hospital and eventually the Wayne County morgue, continuing his weekend job of performing autopsies.

He continued on to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he completed his residency in pathology. “Rochester is a sleepy little town. The coroner there was an ophthalmologist. Mayo didn’t have a forensic pathologist; there was no need for one,” he said. While there, Hyma served as deputy coroner of Olmsted County.

But Hyma had yet to gain any experience in death investigation. “I always had an inquisitive mind,” said Hyma, “but it was really developed at Calvin by professors like Beverly Klooster (biology) and Ken Piers (chemistry). They taught me how to think critically and problem solve.”

Having cultivated these attributes, Hyma was encouraged to put them to good use. “Forensic pathology requires investigation,” said Hyma. “In the case of natural deaths, there is a very clear explanation for it; that’s what you have to figure out.”

He was urged to contact Dr. Joe Davis, one of the pioneers of forensic pathology, who served as the chief medical examiner of Miami–Dade for four decades before his retirement in 1996. (Davis died earlier this year.)

“After everything I had heard about him, I thought, ‘I have to meet this guy,’” said Hyma. They immediately connected; Davis made Hyma an offer to come to Miami and spend a year learning the field.

“It seemed so morbid and depressing to study this kind of stuff at the time,” Hyma said. “And it was somewhat intimidating since I didn’t know much about the process. I thought I would do it for one year.”

An unexpected niche

That was 27 years ago. Since that time, Hyma has taken over the role of chief medical examiner from his retired role model. “Once I got to Miami I finally found out how this specialty is really done. Everything came together; it was an unexpected niche for me.

“I saw all the facets that I had never seen before—how the whole process of information gathering is done, giving assistance to law enforcement at the scene of a death, interfacing with the legal profession and the dental profession and anthropologists and toxicologists and biochemists.”

And almost none of it happens like television would lead one to believe, he said.

Shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and spinoffs, CSI–Miami and CSI–New York, have grown in popularity since the first one was aired in 2000. In fact, the original has been the most popular show in the world five of the last seven years, with a high of 84 million viewers in 2007. The shows have made everyone an “expert” in forensic pathology.

Forensic science “doesn’t have any of the high-tech glitz and glamour you see on TV,” Hyma said. “We don’t operate in dimly lit rooms with black lights; those shows are so hokey I can’t watch any of it for more than five minutes.”

The challenge is, though, that professionals like Hyma and his legal colleagues have to deal with the “CSI effect”: juries that have unreasonable expectations of real-life forensics because of what they have seen on CSI.

“Verdicts can rest on these expectations,” Hyma said.

Verdicts can also partially rest on testimony by Hyma or his colleagues. “As a whole, if you look long enough and in the right places, you can usually find an answer. You may not be satisfied with the degree of certainty, but there’s not a case that goes by that we don’t find an answer. Some are 100 percent, and with some we’re left with more likely than not.”

A recent case grabbed headlines in Miami when a wealthy real estate developer was accused of killing his wife. Hyma testified for the prosecution. The defendant ultimately was found not guilty.

The trial, though, took numerous twists and turns; in fact, it was so intriguing that it was featured on 48 Hours, the CBS true crime documentary series, and aired last October. The episode includes Hyma’s testimony.

“It’s frustrating,” Hyma said of this outcome and others, “but you have to rise above it. It serves no purpose to get mired down in it. We just have to accept what the final verdict is. Our job is to educate the legal profession on how cases need to be presented; that’s what we try to do.”

Serving as educator

Another role of Hyma’s is to educate others within his profession about standards. “There are some outdated systems and standards in place in some states,” said Hyma. “Funding is lacking; often death doesn’t get attention from politicians because as Joe Davis said, ‘Most of the time the dead don’t vote.’”

The Florida system is a recognized leader among states. All of the state’s districts are supervised by the Medical Examiners Commission, constituted by the governor, which oversees the delivery of medical and legal death investigation all over the state. Hyma is the chair of that commission.

He also served on a working group to address the standards of forensic science, which reported to Congress in 2009. “I never thought I would be in a position to influence the standards of practice,” said Hyma.

Hyma is pleased about the opportunity to improve standards in his field and grateful for the perspective his position has afforded him.

“I’m appreciative for how fragile life is and the gift of eternal life,” he said. “My perspective is a very unique one: I see so many individuals who had no idea the day before that they would be coming to this department.

“I remind myself and the staff that we see people every day on the worst day of their life. Human grief is part of our everyday experience here, but it’s still something you never get used to.”

Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.