Video: Schiavo's autopsy

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/31/2005 9:00:26 PM ET 2005-04-01T02:00:26

Terri Schiavo's body arrived at a medical examiner's office within three hours of her death. Dr. William Pellan, Pinellas County's chief of forensic pathology, indicated his main task was not to resolve disputes between her husband and parents.

"An autopsy will be performed to determine cause of death and family requests are immaterial in that determination," he said.

The cause of death is almost certainly a lack of food and water. But Dr. Pellan said there would also be a detailed study of Schiavo's brain by a specialist in neuropathology.

So what might the autopsy reveal?

"You can really get a good idea in terms of which parts of the brain would still be functioning and what parts of the brain are now so sufficiently damaged that they would no longer be functioning," says Dr. Daniel Perl, the chief of neuropathology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.

Perl says the autopsy itself will take an hour or two. But he says a thorough brain exam requires preserving the remains in a solution for a week to 10 days.

Brain scans already have shown that Schiavo's brain shrank considerably, but Perl says the preserved brain tissue gives much more information.

"We can learn the nature of the injury and the extent of the damage," says Perl.

For years it was thought that an eating disorder caused Schiavo's heart to stop. So what about recent allegations, denied by Michael Schiavo, that he caused an injury that stopped her heart? If someone were injured 15 years ago, could you see it on the autopsy?

"[It] depends on the nature of the injury," says Perl. "If it were an actual physical injury, there might be scarring. There may be marks left that are still present. Very often, when it's that many years ago, it can be very difficult.”

So the autopsy, like many other aspects of the case, could remain the focus of intense debate.

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