An Approach to Dissecting the Congenitally Malformed Heart in the Forensic Autopsy: The Value of Sequential Segmental Analysis

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The demonstration of congenital heart disease at autopsy necessitates the careful preservation and examination of the heart, the vessels, and their connections. Techniques preserving these connections and using a reproducible and systematic approach are preferred. The Rokitansky method of organ block dissection, in combination with a system of heart examination termed sequential segmental analysis, provides such an approach. This study is based on the examination of heart specimens accessioned into the Frank E. Sherman, M.D., and Cora C. Lenox, M.D., Heart Museum (containing approximately 2400 specimens) of the Pathology Department, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Specimens received in consultation during a 25-year period from hospitals and coroners’/medical examiners’ offices were examined, and the corresponding reports were reviewed. Of 46 total heart specimens examined (1975–1999), 29 (63%) were dissected properly or left intact for dissection at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and 17 (37%) were incorrectly dissected for the demonstration of congenital heart disease. Of these 17 cases, 11 (24%) displayed dissection errors, which did not hinder a complete diagnosis, 3 cases (6.5%) had errors that enabled only an incomplete diagnosis, and in 3 cases (6.5%), no diagnosis of congenital heart disease could be made. Dissection mistakes and means of avoiding them are discussed. Review of medical and family history, external and internal examination, and a reproducible and sequential method of examining the heart and its connections enables documentation of even the most complex cardiovascular anomalies.

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