Sadly, I didn’t have time to stay with my eye-doctor and further explain the state of my pants because almost immediately after that awkward little conversation, I was dispatched to a baby-death.
Baby deaths are always horrible. It seems stupidly redundant to say so, but I cannot adequately describe the misery and pain experienced by everyone involved. Obviously, there’s the devastation, and guilt on the part of the family. But the fact that the death absolutely MUST be exhaustively investigated adds a whole extra layer of misery to perhaps the most horrific situation in the human experience.
The death was that of a little boy named Joseph. He was about 6 months old. The details aren’t important, it was just pure, undiluted anguish. As is always the case with baby-deaths, Joseph had to get an autopsy- no questions about it. I was just in the process of explaining that inevitability to Joseph’s mother when my pager went off, announcing that I had yet another scene holding where officers requested the medical examiner. Excusing myself from baby-Joseph’s family, I stepped out into the backyard and called the flashing number on my pager.
I was greeted by one of the county detective sergeants… and my heart sank. The fact that there was a detective involved at all meant that I was in for a serious fiasco… but here I had the detective sergeant calling me from the scene of a death. Something terrible was on the horizon.
“So… we’ve had a real mess going on up here…” he began. “This dude shot his wife, then barricaded himself into the house with her. We got here and got her out, she’s at the hospital. But the perp wouldn’t budge. We tried to gas him out with some smoke canisters, but he ended up lighting the house on fire and then shooting himself. The house is completely burned out and we have a charred corpse. When can you get here?
A fire death… GREAT! Fire deaths, like baby-deaths, are always, unconditionally autopsied. No question about it.
“Well… I’m tying things up with this baby-death here, but the thing is, I’m going to have this kid in the truck. I have to take him down to the office for an autopsy. If you’re ready for me to come and get this charred corpse right NOW, then I can be there in 30 minutes. But, just so you understand, I’ll be coming there straight from here so I’ll have a dead baby in the truck with me. If you guys are going to be fiddling around with your scene investigation I won’t come to you until later. I’ll take the baby to the office and then catch up with you afterward, but there is absolutely NO WAY that I am going to race up there and then end up sitting on-scene for 11 hours with a dead baby in the truck while you pick this guy’s house apart.”
I meant it. I knew what the likely story was here. Chances were, they had just confirmed that the guy was dead and before anyone put much thought into it, they said to themselves and each other, “Hey, there’s a dead body here! That means we need the medical examiner!” Then they called for me without stopping to consider that they had a TON of crime scene investigation work in front of them before anyone (including me) could so much as breathe on the body. In this scenario, I would end up dashing to the scene and then sitting there for an eternity, waiting for them to get all their fingerprints and trace evidence and photos and footprints and blah blah blah. One time I was stuck on the scene of a homicide for an entire day before the detectives and crime scene technicians realized how much work they really had in front of them. So they told me to come back the following morning. When I did, I sat on that scene for another 8 hours. No way in hell was I going to repeat THAT situation.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you,” I lowered my voice and spoke slowly, using what I affectionately refer to as, “The Dad Voice”
“If I come to your scene right now, I can only stay there for 30 minutes at most because I will have the slowly decomposing corpse of a 6 month old child in the truck with me. So gauge your answer very carefully.”
I think the whole “dead baby” thing finally hit home because the detective sergeant told me he’d ask the fire investigators what their time-line looked like and call me back.
A few minutes later, he confirmed that my instincts were right.
“The fire guys said they’ll be at it for a few hours before the body can go. So I guess go ahead and take the kid to the office and I’ll call you when this guy’s ready to move..”
Twenty minutes later Joseph and I were headed to the far southern edge of the county where the autopsy suite and morgue are found. I had the little guy wrapped in blankets and laying on the stretcher in the back of my truck, though putting babies in the back of the truck is a move with which I’ve never been comfortable. Children always look so small on the stretcher and it seems so harsh to put them there. Even though that body is the same as any other body- just a vacated flesh vehicle- still, I always feel weird doing it. Of course there’s no better option, really. Laying them across the passenger seat isn’t… appropriate. If I have to hit the brakes they could go flying. But I can’t put them on the floor of the truck because it’s… you know … the FLOOR OF A TRUCK. So babies go on the stretcher- the least of all evils.
I was about halfway to the office when my pager went off again. I let lose with a fountain of profanity as I pulled off to the side of the highway to see who else had a dead body for me. But to my surprise, it wasn’t a whole new death scene. The sergeant with the charred corpse was asking me to call him back right away. And he sounded downright sheepish when I did.
“Soooo… uh, yeah,” He mumbled when I called him back. “The fire investigators say the roof of the house is about to cave in and we need to get the dead guy out of there right now- I mean, like, RIGHT NOW. Where are you?”
“I’m on the side of the highway with this dead kid on my stretcher. Didn’t we already discuss this?”
Yeah, yeah,” I could hear the exhaustion in his voice.”I’m sorry. They just realized it. With the walls gone and all the support beams burned up, they’re afraid what’s left of the second floor is going to collapse on top of this guy. He has to move now.”
“Okay… it’s okay. Sorry for giving you a hard time, It’s just… I’ve been driving in the opposite direction from your scene so it’s going to take me at least 45 minutes to get there. But I’m turning around. I’ll haul ass and be there as soon as I can.”
“Thanks. Again, I’m really sorry. Um…” he stuttered for a moment. “Do you… uh… do you HAVE to bring the baby with you?”
On one hand, I couldn’t blame him. Dead infants make people very uncomfortable. The first time I sat in on a pediatric autopsy, I locked myself in my bathroom and cried for two hours. Even now, though I see deceased children of all ages all the time, the babies still spook me a bit. But the way this detective sergeant was talking, you’d think he expected me to show up with the kid strapped to the hood of the truck like a freshly slain deer.
“Dude, really?” I balked. “What do you want me to do, drop him off at a daycare?”
“No! No, I was just thinking a funeral home could hold on to him or something…”
“I’ll see you soon.” I said with deep finality.
I was at a fairly secluded spot there on the side of the road so I decided to go ahead and relocate Joseph from the stretcher in back to the passenger seat in the cab with me. As I did my best to tuck him into the seat, I told myself that I would just have to be really careful about my driving so as not to disturb him. And as I told myself this, I realized that I was telling him as well.
“Look, I know this isn’t ideal,” I said to the swaddled form as I secured the seat-belt around him and wedged a couple of blankets on to the seat for cushioning. ”But you’ll be okay up here and we’ll be back on our way to the morgue in no time.” I patted him on the back in a pointlessly reassuring manner and climbed back into the driver’s seat.
“Oh! I love this song!” I said to Joseph as we pulled back on the highway and the radio began pouring forth my new favorite tune. I went ahead and cranked the volume to sing along, figuring kids like singing. “Ugh,” I huffed as the song ended and I watched the sun slide closer to the horizon, signaling the fact that the day was long gone and I still hadn’t completed a single page of paperwork. “Can you believe the day I’ve had? What a freaking mess.” -careful to use the word “freaking” because I don’t cuss in front of children. “I mean, seriously… a fatal MVA, a baby-death and then a burned out corpse, I can’t even begin to comprehend the paperwork all of this is going to take.” I glanced over at Joseph and was immediately overcome with guilt for complaining to him like I was, since his day had clearly been much worse than mine.
“Look, I’m really sorry for your family,” I told him. “They seem like nice people, and I know they didn’t DO anything to hurt you, but we always have to do this… just to be on the safe side- you know?”
We drove a little further.
“Anyway, we’re going to go see the Sheriff’s deputies, you’ll like them. They’re good people. And I promise we won’t be there long. I’ve made THAT absolutely clear.”
Soon enough, Joseph and I arrived at the scene of the house-fire, and as described to me by the detective sergeant, the structure was barely a blackened, smoking scaffolding. I slowed my approach and skirted the multitudes of police cars and fire trucks that clogged the dirt road to the driveway. A couple of deputies waved as I pulled closer and one in particular, Deputy Getz (with whom I’m good friends) scampered up to my passenger side window to say hello.
“Hey Grace,” he grinned as I lowered the window and he leaned in. “I’ve been listening to all your death calls over the radio. HOLY SHIT you’ve had a busy day! You here to collect our guy?”
“Sure am” I grinned back. “What kind of trouble have you guys gotten into up here?”
“Hey man, it wasn’t our fault,” he shrugged. “This guy lit the fire himself- he kept the dog in there with him, too.”
“Oh my GOD! Seriously? He killed the dog in the fire? That is SO messed up!”
Getz nodded emphatically. “What a fuckin’ douche-bag, huh? I’d shoot him myself if he weren’t already dead.” Like most law enforcement and emergency personnel, both Getz and I are pretty much desensitized to the atrocities that human beings commit against one another, but there’s no forgiveness for someone who does that shit to a dog…. or a child… speaking of… “Ummm, what’s that?” Getz gestured to the ubiquitous, blanketed lump in the passenger seat.
“Oh, that? That’s Joseph. He’s had kind of a rough day too so we’re keeping each other company.”
Getz stared at me for a second, obviously expecting me to laugh and tell him that I was kidding, but I wasn’t, so I didn’t.
“Ummm, are you serious,” he backed away from the window. “That’s the baby from your last call?”
“Well… yeah” I said. Of course it was the baby, what else would it be? Just then, another officer approached to say hello and as she got closer, Getz grabbed her arm.
“Hey… don’t,” he warned the officer. “She’s got a dead baby in her front seat.”
-And suddenly, I realized that maybe it actually was a little bit west of normal to be discovered driving around with a deceased infant strapped into your passenger seat. I mean, wasn’t like I did it all the time or anything. Flustered, I groped for the briefest explanation possible as to why the baby was right there instead of on the stretcher, but just then I was spotted by the lead fire investigator and he waved me forward into the driveway to collect my decedent.
I smiled a half-hearted goodbye to Getz and the other officer, not liking the squeamish grimace they both wore as they attempted to smile and wave back. Oh well, I thought. It’s not like I’m running for prom queen of the county.
“Stay here, I’ll be right back.” I told Joseph as I hopped out of the truck and pulled the stretcher out of the back. The fire-fighters and I suited up in big plastic suits and booties that covered our shoes (in order to avoid contamination of the trace evidence) and we hoisted the our dead guy out of the smoldering muck of his ruined house, wrapped him in plastic and loaded him into my truck… or at least we did so with most of him. His feet were completely burned away and a couple of his fingers disintegrated as soon as we touched him. The detective sergeant asked me if I could determine whether or not our dead guy had shot himself in the head before the fire took him- An incredibly unrealistic request seeing as how the cranial structure was so ravaged by the flames you really couldn’t even tell where his face was supposed to be. I departed, telling the gathered company that an autopsy would take place the following day and the only thing that would confirm a gunshot wound to the head was an x-ray of the corpse. As I pulled out of the driveway and back on to the road. I patted Joseph again to reassure myself that he was still there, and noted Deputy Getz nearby, avoiding eye-contact with me as I turned back in the direction of the morgue and drove away.
“I swear, Joseph, Those guys can be such babies.” I muttered. “I mean, you’d think they’d be a little bit more… I don’t know… robust when it comes to death.”
No one else called that night. All the same, by the time we finally made it to the morgue, darkness had curled up and settled in around the county. I unloaded my charges as cool gusts of night’s breeze washed away the day’s heat. I logged the two bodies into our database, first the fire-guy, followed by little Joseph. He looked so small on the huge metal gurney upon which we place our dead. I felt the twinge of a sour note ringing in my head as I wheeled Joseph into the cooler with the other bodies. It didn’t feel right to leave him in there, he was a baby. He didn’t belong in there with those grown adults, all fixed in their death pose by rigor-mortis and covered with white sheets. Under the flickering florescents, they looked as though they had all been writhing in distress and paused when they heard me walk in. I began to wheel Joseph’s gurney into the free-space next to Fire-guy when I stopped, overcome with the distastefulness of it all. I just couldn’t do it… after all, that guy had killed a dog.
No, I didn’t put Joseph back into my front seat and drive home.
Instead, I wheeled him back out of the cooler and took a look at the chalkboard where the names and locations of the bodies were listed. “Let’s see…” I murmured under my breath. “A 28 year-old female- suspected overdose… no. A 42 year-old GSW to the chest… no…”
Until I figured it out.
It took some rearranging and if anyone else had been in the morgue that night, they would have thought I was being ridiculous. All the same..
“Here you go Joseph,” I said to him as I wheeled him into his new spot in the cooler: up against the wall on one side, and a 60 year-old gentleman who had died of a suspected heart attack on the other. “Charles, this is Joseph. Joseph, this is Charles. He’s going to look out for you until tomorrow. Charles, you’ve got some bad-seeds in here tonight. But I trust you can handle it.”
And with that, I turned out the lights on the bodies… on my day… and closed the door.
You know you’re a medical examiner when… I’m not sure… when you think it’s weird that other people think you’re weird for having a dead baby in your front seat? When you talk to dead people more easily than you talk to living people? When you do things for the dead that don’t really matter… except that they matter?
I don’t know. I guess my brain has been re-wired in a way that doesn’t make much sense. The reasons that I do somethings doesn’t seem to have any connection to anyone else’s reality. A lot of people who know a lot about psychology and coping mechanisms and PTSD would probably have a lot to say about it. But I’m not interested.
I’m a medical examiner…
and the living are lousy conversationalists.