Lite Review: How Not to Die: Surprising Lessons from America’s Favorite Medical Examiner by Jan Garavaglia, M.D.

Dying to know how to live a longer and healthier life? With thousands of autopsies performed over her 20-plus year career, Dr. Jan Garavaglia (or Dr. G, as she’s commonly known), has seen it all. As chief medical examiner for the District Nine Medical Examiner’s office in Florida, she has lots of stories to tell. Now the author shares the lessons she’s learned from her many decedents that can help us all avoid a premature death.

Dr. G, who has a reality TV series on Discovery Fit & Health, is a forensic pathologist with a knack for putting together the pieces of the puzzle that will help solve the mystery of a person’s death. Like a detective, her investigative skills are continually tested as she attempts to uncover the clues that eventually help identify the cause (action or condition that results in death) and manner (accident, suicide, homicide, natural, undetermined) of death of the individuals who lay on her table. Although the work is far from glamorous, Dr. G seems to have a genuine passion for it.

This book is an extension of her TV show (of which I am a big fan) and expands on her advice about how not to die prematurely or unnecessarily to a degree that she’s not able to do on the show. Each chapter focuses on a major topic such as fear of doctors, prescription drug abuse, surviving hospital stays, driving accidents, obesity, substance abuse, smoking, and so on. From Dr. G I learned what’s involved in doing an autopsy. The case studies, many of which are dramatized on the show, with the patients’ identities changed to protect their privacy, are intriguing and may serve as a wake-up call if you can identify with any of them.

I was surprised to learn that only about 10% of forensic pathology cases are homicides. Approximately 40% are accidents, 10% suicides and 40% premature natural disease. These are sobering statistics and, according to Dr. G, “many of these deaths could have been avoided with better lifestyle choices, preventative care, and commonsense caution.”

A bit of trivia shared by the author is that there are two types of death investigation systems in the United States: coroner systems and medical examiner systems. Coroners are elected officials who may or may not have medical training. Medical examiners are always doctors and are trained in forensic pathology. Most states have medical examiner systems, and some have both.

“I wrote this book to show you how to avoid an early trip to the morgue” says the author, and the book is full of both common sense information and stuff that is not as well known. There’s also a handy resources section at the end of the book.

Many people find forensics fascinating, and there are many popular TV shows (both real and fictional) depicting the subject matter, including Dr. G’s. However, if you don’t want to be a case study on one of them, take the advice the author shares throughout the book.

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