Alum solves medical mysteries as founder of autopsy company The Affordable Care Act was just starting to be implemented in hospitals nationwide when Jennifer (Bero) Alferi finished her medical training in 2012. Health care institutions, unsure how the new law would affect their finances, weren’t hiring newly-minted pathologists. So, since she couldn’t find a job, Alferi decided to make her own. Today, the company she started, Midwest Anatomic Pathology Services, provides private autopsies in Wisconsin and the Chicago area. MAPS contracts with hospitals to conduct autopsies that the hospital’s pathology department is too busy to perform, and it sometimes works with families who request an autopsy for their loved one. Private autopsies? It’s a thing – but it’s nothing like the CSI television shows.
Wisconsin, her father is a dentist, her mother a nurse, and her brother is a veterinarian. As a child, Alferi’s brother was in and out of hospitals to treat a congenital heart defect, which led to her interest in medicine. She began her college career at what is now UWM at Washington County and in 2003 completed her Bachelor’s degree at UWM where she majored in anthropology and biology. Alferi attended the Medical College of Wisconsin and completed a pathology residence in Chicago at Evanston Hospital, followed by two years of a surgical pathology fellowship at Stroger Hospital in the same city. At the same time, Alferi worked with a company called Chicago Area Autopsy Service, where she began to learn about the private autopsy industry. “Then there appeared to be this opportunity for me to start this business,” Alferi said. “There was a lack of people in this field. There was an opening for me and I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this. I can work and there’s a need when there’s not really a need anywhere else.’”
“Most of what I do is medical. I try to stay away from the medical examiner’s component where they do a lot of homicide, suicides, and accidents,” Alferi explained.
The business started slowly as Alferi finished up her fellowship. The year MAPS started, the company was hired for just one or two cases. Gradually, as Alferi reached out to funeral homes and hospitals to offer their services, they began to grow.
Instead, she focuses on solving medical mysteries – why did a particular patient suddenly pass away? Why was a seemingly healthy baby stillborn? Did a hospital make a mistake in treatment that led to a patient’s death?
“The business component of it is very challenging and you learn as you go. In medical school … you’re taught how to do the medical part, but you’re not taught how to do the business part,” Alferi said.
“I’ve always be interested understanding what the disease process is, and I think pathology is the heart of that,” Alferi said. “It’s a basic of understanding of how the body should work and what happens when it doesn’t work.” She comes by that curiosity naturally. Alferi is a doctor in a family of medical professionals. Raised in West Bend, 10 • IN FOCUS • May, 2019
Today, MAPS has branches in Chicago and Mayville, Wisconsin. The company is mobile; Alferi performs autopsies on-site at hospitals and funeral homes. In a typical autopsy, she’ll take samples of tissue to examine them under a microscope to search for factors that contributed to a patient’s death. Sometimes she’ll send blood or tissues samples to another lab for a toxicology screen that looks for drugs or body chemistry abnormalities that could have contributed to a cause of death. She’s seen some interesting – and sad – things in her time on the job, like a heart that was enlarged to four times its normal size due to cancer. Alferi gives the grieving families a preliminary report of her findings, and a more comprehensive report after all of the lab work and tests of tissue samples are complete. “That’s why we really do what we do: For families’ closure and understanding of what had happened,” Alferi said. “Every time that I find a definitive cause of death and I’m able to let people know exactly what happened, it’s very rewarding.” By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science