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CT Scans Of Mummy Help Child-Abuse Victims

April 29, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Abdominal Imaging, Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Techniques that a radiologist developed to tease out the mysteries of a 2,700-year-old Egyptian mummy are also helping to reveal some darker secrets—about child abuse.

Jason Johnson, MD, a 31-year-old radiology resident at Fletcher Allen Health Care, the teaching hospital at the University of Vermont, grew up fascinated by archaeology. So when he saw the mummy at the university’s Robert Hull Fleming Museum in Burlington, he asked if he could run it through the hospital’s CT scanner.

Dr. Johnson and his colleagues spent an hour scanning the mummy, cranking up the power to levels way beyond what would be safe for a living patient. They created exquisitely detailed images, with resolutions down to a hundredth of an inch. The mummy was female, about 14 when she died, with a cyst above one tooth and a potentially fatal fracture above the right ear—though the researchers couldn’t determine whether it occurred before or after death.

The sharpness of the images allowed doctors and university staffers to create a full-size, three-dimensional model of the mummy’s skull.

The Vermont medical examiner’s office took an interest in adapting the same CT techniques to answer more contemporary questions: whether infant deaths resulted from accidents or deliberate abuse. The medical examiner investigates an average of one such death a month.

Washington County State’s Attorney Tom Kelly said he used information from a CT scan in a recent case to determine the age of fractures in a child-abuse victim. “It was tremendously helpful,” he said told the Associated Press.

Dr. Johnson was happy that his curiosity led to the creation of such a useful tool:

It made me feel good I came up with the protocol to work on the mummy. I never sat up at night thinking, ‘How can I save children from abuse?’

The president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, Mary Ann Sens, MD, PhD, said medical examiners are increasingly using CT to complement traditional autopsies and X-rays.

Dr. Sens is chair of the pathology department at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Even if scans don’t turn up evidence of a crime, she said, they can still turn up medically useful information:

That’s what science is all about. Every person’s death can mean something. When we examine it carefully, it benefits society, it benefits the family, and ultimately it benefits everyone.

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