In the event of a tragedy, we often hear stories citing the heroic actions of our police officers, firefighters, EMTs and emergency room doctors. However, behind these scenes and away from the police tape and sirens, there’s a quiet group of responders who often receive little to no recognition.
The District Nine Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office, led by Chief Medical Examiner Joshua Stephany, conducted the identification process, autopsies and reunification with families for all 49 victims involved in the Pulse Orlando nightclub shooting on June 12, when a gunman killed 49 people and injured 68 others. It is considered the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the deadliest incident of violence against the LGBTQ community in U.S. history. Still under investigation by the FBI, the Pulse tragedy is also considered the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Dr. Stephany and his team worked around the clock to complete this monumental task in a matter of days in order to help families receive closure and lay their loved ones to rest during the difficult time.
Dr. Stephany was confirmed as the Orange County Chief Medical Examiner and Division Manager of the District Nine Medical Examiner’s Office on June 14, 2016, just two days after the Pulse tragedy. On his first official day as Chief, he and his team completed the final 18 autopsies resulting from the Pulse tragedy.
“Although June 15 was Dr. Stephany’s first official day as Orange County’s Medical Examiner, his actions throughout the past few weeks, coupled with his vast experience, make it clear that he is the right person for the job,” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said. “When he was selected to serve as medical examiner, we never expected a tragedy like the Pulse nightclub shooting. Dr. Stephany responded with the utmost care and professionalism.”
Previous to his appointment, Dr. Stephany served as Interim Chief Medical Examiner, following the May 2015 retirement of Dr. Jan Garavaglia, known nationally as Dr. G. Though Dr. Stephany tries is more comfortable out of the spotlight, his predecessor, Garavaglia, is known around the nation for her reality television series Dr. G: Medical Examiner, shown on TLC and Discovery Fit & Health.
A New Hampshire native, Stephany was drawn to work in Florida because, while growing up, his family visited Florida every year to escape New England winters.
Stephany said he knew he had wanted to be a doctor since he was young, but decided upon pathology and forensics because he prefers to stay behind the scenes. Though he spends much of his time in the lab, speaking with the families of decedents is also a large and important part of his work.
“One of the misconceptions is that we don’t talk to people; we do. But instead of one patient, we can talk to seven or eight family members,” Stephany explains. “I always tell my staff that every time we talk to a family member, it’s the worst day of their lives and we are always sensitive of that.”
In the span of a week, medical examiner staff dealt with three separate tragedies – the murder of The Voice finalist Christina Grimmie, the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub mass shooting and the loss of 2-year-old Lane T. Graves to a gator attack. As he has reflected on these tragic events, another crucial part of Stephany’s job is to separate his work life from his home life.
“I think all doctors, and all professionals, have to learn how to compartmentalize,” he said. “You don’t want to take your work home with you and it’s no different for me.”
Stephany credits his two golden retrievers, Kennedy and Gronkie, for allowing him to decompress each evening after work.
“They keep me grounded,” Stephany said.
Stephany graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Hampshire with a Bachelor of Science degree in medical laboratory science. He attended St. George’s University School of Medicine earning his Doctor of Medicine. He completed his Anatomic and Clinical Pathology residency at Orlando Regional Medical Center and went on to complete a forensic pathology fellowship at the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Stephany previously served as Associate Medical Examiner to the District Nine Medical Examiner’s Office and clinical assistant professor in forensic pathology at Florida State University College of Medicine.