Autopsy Technician Turns Adversity and an 800 Number Into Success

New York Times

By Don Terry

LOS ANGELES, April 19 - The dead provide Vidal Herrera and his family with a good living.

Mr. Herrera is the founder and owner of Autopsy/Post Services, a company that performs autopsies and other postmortem tasks for private citizens searching for peace of mind or grounds for a lawsuit after a loved one has died. The minimum fee for an autopsy is $3,000. The price can exceed $5,000 when other services, such as medical photography, are added.

This being Los Angeles, Mr. Herrera also has been a consultant to television and movie productions

To reach him, prospective customers dial 1-800-AUTOPSY.

“Business is great.” Mr. Herrera said the other day as he drove around the streets of Los Angeles, his telephone number and a list of the services he provides plastered on the side of his white van. “We do about 600 autopsies a year.”

Next on Mr. Herrera's agenda is a plan to sell franchises, including the right to use 1-800-AUTOPSY.

“The population is getting older,” he said. “It's a good investment.”

Mr. Herrera is doing so well because hospitals across the country have drastically reduced the number of autopsies they perform. According to the American Medical News, a publication of the American Medical Association, before 1960 half the patients who died in hospitals underwent autopsies at no charge to their estate. Today, autopsies are performed on 10 percent or fewer of the bodies. Even teaching hospitals, the figure is only about 12 percent.

Among the reasons for the decline are that cost conscious hospitals no longer want to perform the free service and they fear being sued for misdiagnoses.

“Even with the high degree of medical sophistication, autopsies can undercover a previously unknown cause of death,” said Dr. Ron Spark, a pathologist at the Tucson Medical Center and spokesman for the College of American Pathologists a professional group. “At least 20 percent to as high as 30 percent of autopsies, various studies show, uncover undiagnosed problems.”

Dr. Spark said many hospitals are laying off pathologists, who sometimes go to work for themselves or with people like Mr. Herrera, who has been in business since 1988. Because Mr. Herrera is not a doctor, it is illegal for him to perform an autopsy by himself. He has network of 13 doctors who conduct the procedures on a case-by-case basis, at mortuaries, assisted by Mr. Herrera or his full-time autopsy technician. The doctors get half of Mr. Herrera's fee. Mr. Herrera's wife also works in the business. They have two sons.

But Mr. Herrera is no hearse chaser. He tells prospective clients that in most cases autopsies are not necessary, that everyone dies, especially when the body is too old, or the heart is to weak. “But so many people want to sue that they don't listen,” he said.

A woman called recently wanting an autopsy performed on her 92-year-old-mother, who had died in a local hospital. The daughter was suspicious, Mr. Herrera said, because her mother had “Been doing fine, working in her garden two days before she died.”

Did she smoke? Mr. Herrera asked as he routinely does before taking a case. Yes, the daughter said, for 40 years. She also had high blood pressure, diabetes, shortness of breath and headaches.

“I think they killed her,” the daughter insisted.

Mr. Herrera is not the only entrepreneur to see opportunity on the bold steel of an autopsy table.

Businesses like his have sprung up in other cities, including Chicago and Tacoma, Wash. “But our 1-800 number gives us an advantage,: Mr. Herrera said. “People remember it.”

They certainly notice it. Almost every time Mr. Herrera stopped at a traffic light or when he pulled over for lunch last Friday, people stared and pointed at his van.

Mr. Herrera, 46, learned the trade as an autopsy technician and then as an investigator for the Los Angeles County Coroner's office. He would probably still be there if he had now ruptured three disks in his back in 1984 when he was lifting a dead woman who weighed 284 pounds. Four years later, disabled and desperate for work, he started his business.

At first, people often hung up on him when he told them his business was in Boyle Heights, a largely Latino neighborhood on the city's East Side. Business picked up considerably, he said, when he changed his business address to Brentwood, a West Side neighborhood populated by the rich and famous.

“It's amazing what a change in your ZIP code can do for you,” Mr. Herrera said. “Instant credibility”

But his new office is a small metal and glass box in the Brentwood Mail Box Center. He conducts most of his business affairs from his van.

Though Mr. Herrera has felt discrimination, he said he knew from firsthand experience that racial differences are only skin deep.

“To me,” he said, “A body is a body, especially after you cut them open.”

But Mr. Herrera gets downright evangelical when he starts talking about the “positive side of death.”

“When you die you can help someone by donating your organs and your tissues,” he said. “The dead can save the living. They sure saved me.”