Medical students translate the medicalese in the Michael Brown case documents.
To advance public understanding, fergusondecoded.org, produced by nine Alpert Medical School students, translates into everyday language the medical jargon in more than 60 pages of evidence considered by the grand jury that declined to indict former Ferguson, MO, police officer Darren Wilson in the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown.
Rian Yalamanchili MD’17, a leader of the Ferguson Decoded Project, says the team became inspired to demystify the terminology in Brown’s autopsy and Wilson’s medical examination after seeing the raw evidence laid out in an NPR blog post.
“We felt like this was a place where we could use what we’ve learned so far to assist society in this very important debate across the nation,” Yalamanchili says. “A lot of the terminology used in the documents is very complex. It felt rather unjust that even though this was made publicly accessible, it was still clouded in all this jargon and terminology.”
The team worked through Thanksgiving and the first two weekends of December to produce the site, including an internal peer review and advising by University faculty members with knowledge of medical forensics, human pathology, and structural disparities in health care.
For example, the original medical examiner autopsy report (describing a gunshot wound to the head) read: “The track of this bullet has been traced to pass via the scalp, soft tissue, parietal bone of the skull, right parietal lobe of the brain, right temporal lobe of the brain, right temporal bone of the skull to rest within the soft tissue of the lateral right face.” Translation: “The bullet passed through the scalp, the upper back side of the skull (parietal bone), the right side of the brain (from the parietal lobe to the temporal lobe), the right side of the skull (right temporal bone), and stopped in the right side of the face.”
In addition to Yalamanchili, the students behind fergusondecoded.org are Gina Chen ’11 MD’15, Hyunwoo June Choo ’13 MD’17, Damilola Idowu ’14 MD’18, Kira Neel ’05 MD’18, Laura Ucik ’13 MD’17, Rebecca Slotkin MD’16, Tiffany Chambers MD’17, and John R. Williams MD’15. Their faculty advisers include Lundy Braun, PhD, professor of medical sciences and Africana studies, and Elizabeth Laposata, MD, clinical associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and a forensic pathology expert.
Yalamanchili says the team strived to provide neutral translations without any analysis or commentary. He does acknowledge that like many people, he and many classmates have been “baffled” about the lack of indictments in the Ferguson case and that of Eric Garner, who choked to death when New York City police took him into custody in July.
But Yalamanchili says he hopes that whatever opinion people may hold, the straightforward medical translations he and his fellow students provide will make the Ferguson evidence easier tointerpret.
There is more to any case than justthe medical reports, Laposata says.
“Certain scenarios can be supported or refuted by the scientific evidence,” she says. “It is important to remember, however, that regardless of how detailed and exhaustive the investigation, the evidence may remain silent and not be able to provide an answer for every question.”