When she considers the names of past recipients of the Milton Helpern Award - an honor given by the Pathology/Biology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) - Joyce deJong, DO, says the list is made up of physicians who are icons in the field of forensic pathology.
Now, Dr. deJong’s name has been added to that distinguished list.
In February, at the 2023 AAFS Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, Dr. deJong was honored with the Milton Helpern Award in recognition of a lifetime of achievement and dedication to the mission of forensic pathology. The award focuses on leadership, service, and teaching, and it is the highest award given by the pathology/biology section of the AAFS.
“What I think really struck me most was when I looked at that list of prior recipients of the award,” said Dr. deJong, who serves as chair of the Department of Pathology at WMed. “It was such an honor to be viewed by my peers as deserving. I know everyone on that list and they really are the icons.”
Dr. Helpern, the award’s namesake, served for many years as the chief medical examiner for New York City. He was one of the most well-known forensic pathologists of his time and Dr. deJong said Dr. Helpern was one of the first medical examiners in the U.S. who focused his efforts on public health issues. In the 1960s, Dr. Helpern published works highlighting the growing number of deaths stemming from drug addiction and his belief that the issue presented an alarming public health issue.
As she talked recently about the honor, Dr. deJong said the award would not have been possible without the colleagues and peers she has had the honor of working and collaborating with during her career.
“This isn’t something I’ve achieved on my own,” she said. “There are so many others who have supported me throughout my career, and that includes the people I have the privilege of working with in the Department of Pathology at WMed.”
Dr. deJong has served as the founding chair of the Department of Pathology at WMed since 2014. During her tenure, the department has grown significantly to include a wide range of specialties, including the Division of Neuropathology, the Research Histology Laboratory, and Toxicology Services. Additionally, Dr. deJong leads the Office of the Medical Examiner, which currently serves 12 counties in Michigan.
Outside of WMed, Dr. deJong serves on the federal mass fatality team, and has deployed to mass disaster/fatality events more than a dozen times during her career. She has served as the president of the Michigan Association of Medical Examiners for multiple terms, and currently serves as president of the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME).
“When you go to work and do your job every day, the perseverance and power of that, and the power of hard work and dedication, is really significant to me,” Dr. deJong said. “I’ve always used my role to really focus on medicolegal investigations in the state of Michigan and doing everything I can to improve them. The work we do – and the data we produce – is really important for efforts around improving public health and for the criminal justice system.”
Dr. deJong said she’s also extremely proud of the work she’s done at WMed to make the medical school and the Department of Pathology a strong force at national meetings in the field of forensic pathology. She said she’s equally proud of the team she’s built within the Department of Pathology – faculty and staff – and their contributions to medical literature and research, and their work to provide engaging educational opportunities for fellows and medical students.
“All the good we can do in this arena is really impactful,” Dr. deJong said. “I’m really grateful for this opportunity to have made this meaningful impact in forensic pathology and the medical examiner world … and at the same time I’m motivated to strive to continue to make a positive impact because there’s still more work to be done.”