Two or three times a week, a Hollywood executive or reality-show producer calls Vidal Herrera and asks him to appear on TV or to rent out his office for use as a location. Lawyers bug him to take on high-profile assignments (the families of both Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston made inquiries). Herrera almost always refuses.
It may seem like a guy who tools around his home base of Los Angeles in a white van emblazoned with "1-800-Autopsy"--and a guy who, as a side gig, sells couches made out of coffins--would be a sucker for attention. But Herrera isn't interested in shock value. He wants to educate people about death and the value of private autopsies. Since 2005 he has tried to expand high-quality services to other parts of the U.S. through his 1-800-Autopsy franchise.
Autopsies are typically ordered by local officials when the cause of a death is in question or foul play is suspected. But sometimes family members are the ones who want to know more about a loved one's passing. "In the next 30 years, the number of deaths in the U.S. is going to increase from 2.4 million per year to 4 million," Herrera says. "Hospitals are stressed and dealing less and less with autopsies. Forty-nine percent of deaths are misdiagnosed. People just want to know what happened. There's no transparency in the medical community or law enforcement."
That's when they turn to a private autopsy tech like Herrera, who worked for years at the L.A. County Coroner's Office before being sidelined by a back injury in 1984. An autopsy can help family members find closure or see if there is cause to pursue litigation due to medical errors. When 1-800-Autopsy accepts a case (it performs roughly 750 per year) the procedure is done by a pathologist, and toxicology and autopsy reports can usually be obtained in four to six weeks. For an additional fee, the supervising physicians are available to give expert testimony if called upon.
So why franchise such an unusual concept? Herrera says he has seen autopsy technicians try to set off on their own and get entangled in legal problems. Since there is no U.S. school that offers specific training in autopsy work, Herrera believes his franchise can give technicians the support they need to succeed.
Another reason is his commitment to veterans. After his back injury left him temporarily paralyzed, Herrera found work as a contract employee at the Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Medical Center. Now he wants to give vets a chance to set up their own businesses. "I could teach them to be employed and have dignity in their lives," he says. "I was in the same predicament. I'm grateful because the government helped me, and I desperately want to give back."
Convincing franchisees to sign on, however, has been difficult. He has had units in Northern California, Nevada and Florida (though one location has since failed). But Herrera is not giving up. "Doctors are losing their positions all over the country and want to start doing private autopsies," he says. "They call me all the time. We've interviewed a medical writer to help us communicate better and offer our franchise to the public. We need to come out of the shadows and be more aggressive."
Meanwhile, Herrera is working to maintain strict ethical standards. "Many times when people come to us they are suspicious, in shock or grieving," he says. "But we will never take a case simply to make money. That's why many doctors won't work with us. They think we're turning away ‘slam dunks.' Families come to us and say, ‘I don't know what happened, grandma was a healthy 91'--but she had a pacemaker, had lymphoma and had intestinal problems. In that case we'll tell the family that it was just her time; she exceeded her life expectancy, and we don't feel an autopsy is warranted. Our mission statement is about honesty, and being upfront about the whole process of death and what happens after."
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.