A LIFE'S WORK
The Independent|October 05, 2021
Since qualifying as a doctor in 1977, Richard Shepherd has seen more trauma than most. He tells James Rampton about his career, and the importance of having a sense of humour
James Rampton

Dr Richard Shepherd, one of the country’s most distinguished forensic pathologists, has led a life immersed in death.

He has presided over more than 23,000 autopsies, and his work has involved him in some of the most shocking tragedies that have befallen the world over the past 40 years: 9/11, 7/7, the death of Princess Diana, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the serial killings of Dr Harold Shipman, the Hungerford massacre, the suicide of Dr David Kelly, the Cumbria shootings, the murder of Jo Cox MP and the Bali bombings.

Since qualifying as a doctor in 1977, Shepherd has witnessed enough trauma to last several lifetimes. And yet he remained, apparently, unaffected by all the death and devastation he had seen – until one tiny, seemingly innocuous moment in 2016 changed everything.

The 68-year-old, who is married to Linda, a forensic physician, and has two adult children, Chris and Anna, takes up the story. “You know you can buy cubes of ice in a bag at the supermarket? That’s what we have in the fridge, as I’m sure many people do. One evening, I was mixing my wife a gin and tonic, so I opened the freezer door and grabbed a couple of ice cubes.

“But seeing the ice in the bag took me straight back to the heat and the smell and the bodies lying on the ground in Bali in 2002. It was awful there. The infrastructure in that country simply wasn’t there. The mortuary was terrible. It was really dirty and only had one tap, which dribbled rather than ran. There was no storage space, and that’s why we were using bags of ice to try and cool the bodies. So opening a bag of ice at home several years later suddenly triggered PTSD within me.”

In a characteristically professional, restrained British manner, after this severe episode of PTSD, Shepherd attempted to keep calm and carry on, claiming everything was fine. “I got through a very bad night and went to my office on my own the next morning, but I just sat there, completely frozen.

“So I phoned the GP and said, ‘Hello, I’d like an appointment.’

They replied, ‘I’m sorry, you can only make appointments at 8 o’clock in the morning.’

‘I think I might be about to kill myself.’

There was a brief silence before they said, ‘Would you like to come straight down?’”

The mental health services immediately kicked into action, and Shepherd says, “I’ve been so, so lucky with the people who have helped me. The mental health nurses came round immediately, and the acute support team were just phenomenal people. I remember one of them saying to me, ‘You know, the thing that really worries me about doctors is that a lot of patients talk about suicide, but you actually know what to do!’”

Never far away from the next flash of gallows humour, Shepherd continues, “But not all those times were dark. For instance, when I drove up to my psychologist’s house for my first therapy session, I noticed that it was called Wit’s End. I thought, ‘I trust this woman already!’”

These jokes are typical of Shepherd’s jet-black sense of humour. He uses laughter as a coping strategy, believing it is necessary to lighten the darkest moments. For example, he remarks that, after the supermarket bag of ice prompted his PTSD, “I did try and sue the supermarket, but it didn’t go well!”

In a similarly light-hearted vein, he reveals that, as a specialist in knife crime, he used to test out his theories using different knives on the meat he was carving for the family dinner. “I didn’t stab every Sunday roast with a variety of knives, but the children definitely did see me do it sometimes. How else do you assess these things? Why waste an opportunity?”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the newspaper

MORE STORIES FROM THE INDEPENDENTView All

Twitter launches new policy on misinformation ahead of Musk ‘free speech’ takeover

Twitter has unveiled a new crisis misinformation policy, making permanent the temporary measures it announced during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – but the change could clash with the ideology of Elon Musk, who is set to purchase the company.

2 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

Insomniacs to be prescribed app instead of sleeping pills

Hundreds of thousands of people suffering from insomnia will be offered treatment through a mobile phone app instead of a prescription for sleeping pills.

2 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

Channel 4 calls on Dorries to back up faked show claim

Channel 4 is calling on Nadine Dorries to provide evidence to back up her claim that a TV production company faked a reality show they broadcast, which she starred in.

2 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

What Sunak can do to help with rocketing energy bills

Pressure is building on Rishi Sunak to announce financial support that will help people through the UK’s cost of living crisis.

2 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

Supermarkets to ban junk food offers after PM refuses

Boris Johnson has said he wants to help struggling families “save on their food bills” by delaying a promised ban on “buy one get one free” promotions on junk foods until 2023.

2 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

Russian soldier says he ‘did not want to kill’ Ukrainian

A 21-year-old Russian soldier has told a court that he did not want to kill an unarmed Ukrainian civilian, during the first trial to be held in respect of war crimes in Ukraine.

2 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

Russia controls Mariupol after victory at steelworks

The remaining 500 soldiers at the Azovstal steel plant surrendered yesterday, according to Russia

2 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

Even if Gray exonerates Johnson, the public won’t

Never mind fines, what matters to voters is that those having parties in No 10 were being hypocrites, writes Sean O’Grady

2 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

Johnson among ‘dozens’ at No 10 named in Gray report

Boris Johnson is among dozens of Downing Street figures who have been warned they will be named in Sue Gray’s longawaited report into the Partygate scandal.

4 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022

Biden ally set to meet Truss as ministers are urged ‘not to breach’ the NI protocol

US congressman Richard Neal will hold talks over the Brexit treaty in London today

3 mins read
The Independent
May 21, 2022
RELATED STORIES

MOMMIES Who MUSHROOM

Inside the GROWING-and, to some, CONTROVERSIAL-MOVEMENT in which PARENTS are using PSYCHEDELICS to TAKE the edge off MODERN PARENTHOOD

10+ mins read
Harper's BAZAAR - US
April 2022

KIRK DOUGLAS Regrets & REDEMPTION

HE CLIMBED TO THE TOP IN HOLLYWOOD, BUT HEARTBREAK MADE HIM A BETTER MAN

2 mins read
Closer US
March 28, 2022

Min Jin Lee Wants You to Pay Attention

The National Book Award finalist and author of Pachinko and Free Food for Millionaires wants to give a more nuanced portrait of Asian-American life, including the everyday racism communities face

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
March 21 - 28, 2022 (Double Issue)

Exercise Your Health Options

There’s nothing wrong with working out to look great. The true benefits of exercise are the ways it can make your health do a complete 180. Here are four ways working out can improve your life, and one important way it can’t.

5 mins read
Men's Fitness South Africa
March - April 2022

QUEEN'S LONELY FINAL DAYS!

DEATH is stalking Queen Elizabeth!

1 min read
National Enquirer
January 24, 2022

new KITCHEN for an old house

THE WALLPAPER’S AESTHETIC MOVEMENT OR BRITISH ARTS & CRAFTS PATTERN IDEALLY SUITS THIS 1903 AMERICAN QUEEN ANNE HOUSE.

3 mins read
Old House Journal
January - February 2022

STALKER STUCK SANDRA WITH PTSD

SHAKEN Sandra Bullock admitted she’s still suffering from crippling posttraumatic stress disorder after enduring a frightening home invasion in 2014!

1 min read
National Enquirer
December 20, 2021

SMALL INTIMATE MOMENTS

PHOTOGRAPHY OFFERS ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE IN THE WORLD WHILE I ALSO FLOATING OUTSIDE IT. WHEN I AM IMMERSED IN MAKING CANDID PHOTOGRAPHS, I SLOW DOWN AND ENJOY MOMENTS THAT I WOULD OTHERWISE MISS." - REBECCA ROTHEY

2 mins read
Lens Magazine
November 2021

How I Became One of 37,000 Homeless Veterans

Service in the Navy was supposed to guarantee a good civilian job later and access to needed medical care. It didn’t

7 mins read
Newsweek
November 26, 2021

Kristen Stewart

PARTING SHOT

2 mins read
Newsweek
November 05, 2021