Though 80 percent of coroners are appointed these days, many are still elected. According to NPR, 1,600 counties across the country—mainly sparsely populated areas—still select them by ballot. Many of these coroners have little to no medical experience, but you can’t say that about Andrea “Cricket” Coleman ’88, recently elected coroner of Columbia County, NY. Elected with 55 percent of the vote, she not only has a medical degree, but has also had residencies and fellowships in anatomic pathology and forensic pathology. She was employed as a forensic pathologist in the office of the New York City Medical Examiner for eight years. After her swearing-in ceremony in January, her duties will include going to the scene of homicides and accidental or other unattended deaths, and helping law enforcement officials determine the cause of such deaths.
We recently asked Coleman about her somewhat circuitous path from Vassar to the county coroner’s office.
Q. How did you choose Vassar, and what was your major?
A. I went to boarding school in Williamstown, MA, and was an apprentice at the theater festival there one summer when I was 15. I met and became friends with a girl who was starting at Vassar the following fall. I greatly admired her and became bent on going there as well. Additionally my best friend from high school was also going to Vassar. In a well thought out response to being put on the waiting list I decided I wouldn’t go to college at all. My parents vetoed that plan, so I spent fall semester at American University and transferred to Vassar for the spring semester of my freshman year. I majored in studio art.
Q. How does a studio art major become a coroner?
A. After college I drifted around the east coast painting and finally landed in New York City. I was painting commissioned portraits, designing needlepoint and working as a freelance graphic designer. When I was 26, I decided I wanted to be what I felt was a more interactive and productive member of society. For that reason, and a myriad of others, I decided to go to medical school (much to the surprise of my family and anyone who’d ever met me). With my Bachelor of Arts degree in hand, I enrolled in the post-baccalaureate pre-med program at Columbia University. I started medical school at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn in 1998 and graduated in 2002. I did my residency in anatomic pathology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, and then did two years of fellowships (forensic pathology and cardiovascular and neuropathology) at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York City, where I stayed on for the following eight years.
Q. Why did you choose pathology as your specialty?
A. During the year after finishing the post-bac program and prior to starting medical school, it was recommended that one work in a lab for med school application purposes. Beyond looking good on an application I wasn’t terrifically interested in research or working in a lab. I determined that the most helpful thing for me going into my first year of medical school would be to get a leg up (ha!) on gross anatomy. I cold-called the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office and asked if they took interns. They said yes, I went for an interview, and I ended up in the DNA lab. I interned there for a year and was hired as a consultant the next year. During that time I also observed several autopsies and was fascinated. During medical school, I fell in love with surgery and applied to 10 surgical residencies and one pathology residency. When my match list was due I had a moment of clarity with regard to my future lifestyle -- I was already 34 at that point and couldn’t really see myself sleeping in the hospital for the next seven or eight years -- and ranked the pathology program #1.
Q. How did you land in Upstate New York?
A. My husband bought a weekend house in Columbia County in 2010 so we’d been spending time here since then and I loved it. In 2014 we decided to live there full time. While I love the city, I felt ready to simplify my life and concentrate again on painting; I resumed doing portraits for commission. It’s been surprisingly steady work with a lot less pressure. After a few years living in the country and working on my own, I again began to feel compelled to serve in some way outside myself. After this last presidential election, I joined the Columbia County Democratic Committee. When they were looking for a candidate for coroner, they approached me because of my work history and qualifications. It seemed the perfect solution. During my first year living up here I did contract work for the Dutchess County Medical Examiner, but I won’t be doing autopsies in my new job. The coroner responds to the death scene, determines whether or not an autopsy is necessary and ultimately issues the death certificate. The county has a contract with a forensic pathologist in Schenectady who performs the actual autopsies.
Q. What was it like running for office?
A. I’m a bit of an introvert, so campaigning itself wasn’t my favorite activity. While I did really enjoy meeting people across the county, public speaking was a challenge. This was my first foray into politics, so it was an incredible learning experience. I had the endorsements of the Working Families and Women’s Equality parties in addition to the Democrats, and I did quite a few meet-and-greets. But I ran because I wanted to contribute to my new community. As a medical examiner in New York City, I often dealt directly with the families of the decedents. That was an incredibly rewarding part of my work, and I expect I’ll be doing quite a bit of that as coroner.
—Interview by Larry Hertz