- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — The color scheme at the retirement party was purple, the liturgical color of mourning. The chitchat over hors d”oeuvres was about interesting autopsies. Famed crime novelist Patricia Cornwell cracked jokes, the crowd”s laughter spilling from the room into the hallway — which leads to a morgue.

Virginia”s pioneering chief medical examiner, Dr. Marcella Fierro — the inspiration for one of the most famous characters in crime literature — retired yesterday after more than three decades of service to the commonwealth. And the woman who has dedicated her life to the dead is as unusual as the party recently thrown in her honor.

“You become much more aware of how tenuous life is,” the 66-year-old told the Associated Press in an interview reflecting on her career. “It is a great gift.”

She worked on some of the nation”s most notorious crimes, including the Virginia Tech shootings and Richmond”s “Southside Strangler” serial killings. And although she would never admit it, many would argue she was the catalyst for the explosion of forensic science-themed TV shows, movies and books.

In 1984, Miss Cornwell, then an aspiring writer, snagged an appointment with Dr. Fierro to ask questions about what a medical examiner does. It was, Miss Cornwell says now, the turning point in her creative life. She began working in Dr. Fierro”s office, and the doctor became her mentor. Dr. Fierro also became the inspiration for the heroine of Miss Cornwell”s future best-selling novels: Kay Scarpetta, the fictional chief medical examiner of Virginia. The Scarpetta series started a forensic mystery craze.

“I would not be where I am today in my life were it not for Dr. Fierro,” Miss Cornwell says.

But aside from their jobs and penchant for Italian cuisine, Dr. Fierro sees little resemblance between herself and the fictional doctor.

“Kay is blonde, blue-eyed and 115 pounds,” she says dryly. “I”ve never been blonde, I have brown eyes, and I haven”t weighed 115 pounds since I was 12.”

Miss Cornwell sees a stronger connection.

“What she does have in common with Marcella is this amazing database between her ears, a tremendous compassion for the victims and she will fight to the death for them,” Miss Cornwell says. “She has always been a tremendous advocate for those who can no longer speak for themselves.”

Indeed, those who end up on Dr. Fierro”s table are not “bodies” or “the dead.” They are patients.

“We are physicians. And our mission is to take care of our patient — who just happens to be dead,” she says. “They have a story to tell. And they tell us their story through the physical examination and the testing that we do — just as if they were living people.”

From the time she was a child in Buffalo, N.Y., Dr. Fierro wanted to be a doctor. The daughter of a teacher and an aviation machinist was drawn to the puzzle aspect of forensic pathology, likening the job to that of a medical detective. She received her certification in forensic pathology in 1975, only the ninth woman in the country to achieve that distinction. She was quickly hired as deputy chief medical examiner for central Virginia and became chief in 1994.

Through the years, she earned a reputation as meticulous and relentless, a defense attorney”s nightmare in court. Colleagues describe her as entertaining, tough, warm, brilliant and humble.

“She leads by example,” says Dr. Leah Bush, who will succeed Dr. Fierro as chief. “And because she”s so dynamic, you want to follow her.”

Dr. Fierro cites persistence as her greatest strength and hates that some tasks take her longer to complete than she”d like. Her biggest vice is smoking (“I may be the last living physician smoker,” she admits in a gravelly voice) and has been trying to quit for more than 40 years. Despite all the gruesomeness she sees, she only has nightmares when she goes on the nicotine patch.

She doesn”t care much for attention and isn”t impressed by fame. Years ago, Miss Cornwell brought Demi Moore to the morgue when the actress was considering playing Kay Scarpetta in a film. Dr. Fierro, Miss Cornwell recalls, was not impressed.

“I”ve had several people say, “Well, how does Marcella treat you now that you”re so rich and famous?” and I said, “Just as rudely as she ever did,” ” Miss Cornwell says with a laugh.

Dr. Fierro favors romantic comedies, thinks the CBS series “Numb3rs” is “the cat”s meow,” and devours thrillers. But she can”t tolerate violent films or TV shows.

“I cannot find a shooting or a stabbing entertaining. I simply can”t,” she says. “My frame of reference — absolutely wrong for gore.”

Years ago, Miss Cornwell remembers, she and Dr. Fierro went to see a play, with a scene depicting a rape. Dr. Fierro suddenly bolted from the theater, and Miss Cornwell found her in the parking lot, crying.

“People just don”t understand,” she told Miss Cornwell. “They don”t understand.”

The cause of Dr. Fierro”s anguish was clear to her friend.

“She was saying, “This is not entertainment,” ” Miss Cornwell says.

“That”s the only time I ever saw her cry.”

But Dr. Fierro does mourn — for each patient she sees.

“You grieve every time you see a death that could have been prevented, whether it”s an accident or it”s a homicide or a suicide, or even a natural death in someone who didn”t care for themselves,” she says. “So you”re grieving all the time.”

Compartmentalizing that grief, she says, has been crucial to her work.

“If you”re sitting there grieving over somebody”s pain and misery, you”re not concentrating on solving their problem,” she says. “The patient doesn”t need your tears. He needs your skill.”

Keeping her emotions in check has also been key to her survival.

“You have to be able to set aside, for at least hours to days, the emotions that you feel,” she says. “Otherwise, you would probably sit in a corner and never turn your head away.”

The job certainly made her more aware of her own mortality; she prays that her death will be a speedy one. In the eyes of her two children, the job also made her an overprotective mother. But it did not harden her.

“I feel great compassion for families, for the folks who are suffering,” she says. “At the same time, it”s a blessing, it”s a great gift, because most people can do very little to help a grieving family. And we have the privilege of being able to give them the information that they need to know.”

And though Dr. Fierro”s work can be somber, her wit is scalpel-sharp and she easily finds humor in the job”s absurdities.

There was the time that she and a detective got stuck in a swamp while trying to reach a floating body. After firefighters came to their rescue, TV news crews filmed her as she clambered up a ravine. At dinner that night, Dr. Fierro”s children announced, “Oh, Mummy, we saw up your skirt today.”

Then there was the time she and a detective found themselves at the scene of a homicide in a house filled with glass tanks of snakes. The jittery officer kept pointing his gun at the tanks, which prompted Dr. Fierro to panic, well-aware that one bullet would shatter the glass and unleash the serpents.

“If any of those snakes got out, man, I was outta there,” she recalls, roaring with laughter. “That”s not in my position description.”

She plans to continue teaching and working with the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine. Mostly, she wants to spend her time traveling with her college sweetheart and husband of 41 years, Bob.

Back at her retirement party, the doctor, looking mildly embarrassed by all the attention, is nonetheless laughing as her colleagues regale her with tales of her more memorable moments. Miss Cornwell hands her a first-edition copy of her first Scarpetta book, “Postmortem,” and prods her to read the inscription she penned.

Dr. Fierro smiles slightly as she reads it out loud:

“You started it all.”

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