JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dr. Valerie Rao has spent nearly four decades helping put criminals behind bars and giving grieving families answers they desperately need.
She considers her time as Duval County's chief medical examiner a career of service. Service that is coming to an end as Rao readies herself to retire to spend time with her family.
“I have been so blessed -- 37 years, 38 years -- doing this every day,” Rao said. "Every day is a new day. That's what's exciting about my career and about forensic pathology in general. It's a fascinating field of medicine."
Fascinating and sometimes emotionally draining.
Rao has seen everything from the rise of the opioid crisis causing her morgue to overflow to the bodies of patients much too young lying on her table.
One of those young bodies belonged to 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle, whose brutal rape and murder Rao was forced to describe for jurors during the trial for the girl's killer, Donald Smith.
UNCUT: Medical examiner's entire testimony (Caution: Contains graphic details)
Rao became emotional enough that she needed to request a break during her testimony, something she said was rare in her long career.
“I think that I'm so tough, but I have an 8-year old granddaughter, and the child was almost as old as my granddaughter,” Rao said. “Those memories don't fade."
Rao said despite those difficult days, she hopes to inspire the next generation of medical examiners as they take on the burdens and joys of what she considers a field of public service.
She said there's a shortage of those willing to pick up that mantle, which has made finding a replacement for her difficult. She has agreed to stay on as the interim chief medical examiner until a new one can be selected.
Rao plans to move out of town in retirement to be near her family.
She'll also be heading to Sri Lanka after being invited by the government to be an external examiner for doctoral forensic pathology graduates. The trip will allow her to visit with someone she hasn't seen in a long time: her sister.
“I haven't seen her in 35 years,” Rao said. “So, a final goodbye."