By Lisa Fernandez
One morning, there was a knock on Michelle Jorden's door. She ushered in a special delivery: a baby's brain floating in a plastic bucket.
"No," she said. "It wasn't surprising."
Deliveries like that aren't that unusual for Dr. Jorden. As one of Santa Clara County's three medical examiners, she's the only one on the team who is board certified as a neuropathologist, an elite type of doctor who specialize in autopsies of brains.
Colleagues say that in the nearly two years she's been at the office, she's become the go-to woman on almost all the shaken-baby cases, and any death that needs special analysis of the brain. The 38-year-old's opinion on how a person died is crucial in the courtroom.
"She really likes the homicides," said Santa Clara County sheriff's Capt. Pete Rode, who helps manage the coroner's office, which gets about 60 homicides a year. "Law enforcement loves her because she's so thorough. When we can't figure out something that doesn't make sense, she'll come in and say, 'yes' or 'no.' "
In the case of the baby's brain delivered to her doorstep by a Vacaville detective last summer, she quickly determined that the story given -- that 4-month-old Nicholas Kelly was found unresponsive -- didn't add up. After her examination, she saw there had been a traumatic injury to the brain. Today, Angel Sanchez, who was the boyfriend of Nicholas' mother, faces murder charges in Solano County.
"With every case, there's always a story," said Jorden, a slight woman with long blond hair, a Chicago accent and a confident air. "My job is to see whether the story explains the autopsy results. When they don't match up, there's obviously a problem."
Jorden said she found such a problem in May.
She was conducting an autopsy on Anahi Hernandez, an 8-week-old San Jose baby whose 19-year-old father said she rolled off a 17-inch mattress.
Jorden examined Anahi's tiny body. She found head injuries and several broken bones.
Her conclusion, that baby Anahi had suffered weeks of abuse, led San Jose police to arrest father Pablo Rosas Hernandez on charges of murder.
"She doesn't show too much emotion," Rode said. "And this is difficult work to look at, looking at the body to figure out how they died, but she deals with it very well."
Jorden said she stays focused because when she's performing an autopsy, she is that person's doctor; it doesn't matter if that person can't move, speak or breathe.
"You can't go into an autopsy and be emotional," she said. "Then you wouldn't be doing that person justice."
It's not as though Jorden doesn't carry the work home with her, though, or shut off the stories of victims from swimming around in her head at night. Though she has cut into the organs of hundreds, if not thousands, of patients over the course of her career, two deaths stand out for her, and made her eyes well up with tears recently.
In 2007, when she worked in Chicago, where the Cook County coroner's office sees about 500 homicides a year, Jorden conducted the autopsy on two brothers, 12 and 13. They were bound, stabbed and fatally beaten as they tried to protect their sister from being raped.
"It was a horrific crime," Jorden said. "And they died trying to do a heroic act."
But although Jorden is the doctor of the deceased, she also has a keen awareness that her opinion likely will be a prosecutor's tool in putting someone behind bars, sometimes for life.
"I have to be sure," she said.
Has her testimony in court ever been proved false by a defense attorney?
"No," she answered.
Dr. John Ralston, who worked with Jorden in Cook County, said she is among the most "thorough, precise and analytical" medical examiners he's ever known. "She really goes the extra mile to get a complete diagnosis."
Jorden has been sure since she was 15, growing up in the Chicago area, that she's wanted to be a medical examiner after she tried out a high school internship doing rounds with a pathologist.
"I just thought it was the coolest thing," she said.
And she has been unwavering in her path, completing neuro, forensic and surgical pathology fellowships at Stanford University Medical Center and the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office in Chicago. At Stanford, she was also the chief resident of the anatomic and clinical departments in 2004 and 2005. Of nearly 750 members of the National Association of Medical Examiners, only 24 listed that they are certified in neuropathology, according to the organization.
Even though at cocktail parties, she often gets the "Ewwwwww!" factor, Jorden says that nothing about the human body grosses her out, even though the "smell is something you have to get used to."
"I'm fascinated," Jorden said. "Even when I've had to deal with maggots and beetles, I just push them away."
If anything, Jorden said her job delving into death has made her appreciate being able to go home to her daughter.
Outside of work, Jorden said spending time with her family is really the most important thing to her.
"Having this job really makes you appreciate life," she said, "and, really, the fragility of life."
Former Mercury News intern Olga Kuchment contributed to this report. http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_15869686?nclick_check=1