Monday, July 19, 2010

Living on the edge of a knife

China Daily/Asia News Network Sun, Jul 18, 2010
Wang Qian

PHOTO: Wang Xuemei, 54, the first female forensic doctor of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, is seen in an artistic photo (right) and at work.
China Daily/Asia News Network Sun, Jul 18, 2010

BEIJING, CHINA, Respected, elegant, daring, straightforward, even cheerful, are not exactly the first words you would think of to describe someone who works with the dead.

Yet for Wang Xuemei, China's top female forensic doctor, that seeming contradiction is her reality.

While remaining positive and happy in her daily life, in her work she uncovers the truths of life and death waiting silently to be discovered below the flesh.

Through her training she communes with the dead and lets them tell her what happened. "The living may lie, but the dead don't," says the 54-year-old as she looks at two human skeletons standing motionless beside her office desk.

Over the past 30 years, Wang has performed autopsies for countless criminal cases. Under her scalpel, bodies offer up their secrets.

"I learn a lot from my work. When a dead body is lying there, he or she is using their whole life to teach me, and I must respect the clues they have left for me in order to find out about their past," Wang said.

She is one of the few people in the country to hold a master's degree in forensic medicine and the first female forensic doctor of the Supreme People's Procuratorate. In 2008 she was named a Model Career Woman of China.

(The Supreme People's Procuratorate (simplified Chinese: 最高人民检察院; pinyin: Zuì gāo Rén mín Jiǎn chá yuàn) is the highest agency at the national level responsible for both prosecution and investigation in the People's Republic of China.

Through her autopsies she has made crucial contributions to tracking down and punishing criminals. "That's why I always respect the dead," Wang said. "I might behave funny sometimes in my daily life, but I immediately become careful, serious and decisive as soon as I get to work."


She recalled a recent case involving a woman who died soon after giving birth. Her husband was accused of killing after he had slapped her during a quarrel the night before she gave birth, rupturing her eardrums, which could have led to the bacterial infection that killed her.

But her autopsy proved his innocence, showing that she died because her immune system was too weak to fight the bacteria that had infected her long before the incident.

"It is a great pity to see a life disappear this way," Wang said. "When a person gets angry, the immune system gets weak and viruses can attack the body more easily than usual, which might be the real cause of her death."

Her years of hard work have resulted in her own immune system being seriously impaired. Nevertheless, she has no intention of putting aside her scalpel any time soon.

Sometimes, she said, it is not others who kill you, but by giving up you let yourself die. "I love life and I can easily lighten up my life," added Wang, a single mother with a 24-year-old daughter. "Whenever I feel down, I sing. When I sing, I can see sunshine pouring into my life.

"This is probably the reason that I can always explore the dark world of death and crime yet without being dragged down."

Born into an army family, Wang has learned to be optimistic and always laughs at any hardship and embarrassment she encounters in her career.

PHOTO: (Source: China Daily)

She happily recalled her third autopsy as a student when she had still barely managed to hide her fear of corpses. This time she had to perform an autopsy on a bloody body contaminated with hepatitis B.

While she tried to avoid getting blood on her clothes, a colleague unintentionally splashed it all over her while trying to clean the corpse with tap water.

"I simply threw down the scalpel, ran out of the lab and cried for almost three hours," Wang said, laughing about her old fears.

The next day, Wang, however, was back and as smiley as ever. "After that good cry, I wasn't afraid of corpses any more," she said.

Wang took to forensic medicine because of her teacher Liu Mingjun, who is also an excellent forensic doctor.

Wang said she initially thought forensic doctors would appear cold and ugly because they had to deal with ruined bodies every day. But Liu's elegance changed her mind and let her know that a forensic doctor could be as graceful as a dancer.

"She made me feel forensic medicine is a marvelous and charming world, like dancing," Wang said. "We forensic doctors are dancing on the edge of knives and thinking about life through our communication with deceased souls."

Nevertheless, as romantic as she phrased it, a forensic doctor's work has always been very challenging, not only physically but mentally, Wang said. "You'd never imagine what's coming from the autopsy. It makes me feel like there are new surprising things every day, which always keeps me interested and excited. This is the very life I like."
By Wang Qian