I have a super cool job, I’m not gonna lie.
This profession has allowed me to do all kinds of nifty stuff. For example:
There aren’t many jobs out there where you are allowed… and, in fact, encouraged to cut up human beings.
I recently decided that it would be beneficial to get some cross-training with the autopsy/pathology technicians. It’s been at least a decade since I took Anatomy and Physiology, and it’s a good idea to maintain a solid familiarity with what goes on with people internally, this will help me to evaluate dead people externally. Furthermore, there are some jurisdictions in the country where the medicolegal death investigators are also the autopsy technicians… so to make myself more marketable in this field (should I ever want to leave my current position… which doesn’t seem likely. But still, never say never) it would behoove me to know how to “cut”.
This is what the pathologists called it when they called me to schedule my autopsy lessons.
“So I understand you want to learn to cut,” they would say, as though I was asking for instruction on how to knit or dance the tango. “Well that’s just super! I’ve got a post (short for “a post-mortem exam”) tomorrow morning that I think would be a great way for you to get your feet wet!”
I wasn’t sure if this was a euphemism or not.
(Turns out it was both figurative and literal.)
Anyway, thats how I found myself elbow deep in a dead guy with Dr. Smith standing over me, cheering me on. “That’s it!” he bellowed. “Really get your elbow into it, nice long strokes!” It turns out, the doctors were enthusiastic about me jumping right in, so to speak, because not long ago, they had something of an autopsy technician drought. They only had one tech for four doctors. Sure, they could have put out a cattle call for autopsy techs, but apparently it really IS hard to find good help these days. Posting an add on Craigslist isn’t exactly a great way to find quality “cutters”. And nobody wanted to deal with an influx of nut-jobs who all clamined to be proficient at chopping people up.
Consequently, when someone relatively known and trustworthy… as in I had already passed an extensive background check… stated that they wanted to learn to “cut”, the doctors were delighted.
Of course the downside of this new training of mine was the fact that I am now WAY TOO familiar with the odor of freshly exposed, ripe, un-preserved human intestines… which is one of the more ghastly aspects of the whole autopsy experience. Human intestines smell just awful. I mean really, REALLY rank. And just this morning, when I was about to add some cooked rice to my frittata, I couldn’t help but notice that, when i opened up the tupperware container, the week old rice gave off a waft of stench that was so acutely similar to that of human intestines, I quietly gagged, fed the offedning substance to my dogs and had to cook a whole new batch of rice. My breakfast was delayed for half an hour. #MedicalExaminerProblems.
Another cool thing that I get to do is go and look at bones that people dig up. You may not know this, but the ground around us is simply littered with all manner of bones. Generally these bones completely disintigrate before we see them. But things die around us all the time and we don’t typically notice… until something dies and leaves behind a bone that looks like it might be human.
People find bones all the time. Folks find them when they dig up their garden, when they do home improvements, when they put a new fence in their yard. Usually these bones are either old, chewed up butcher bones that someone gave to a dog long ago… or they are the bones of a pet that was buried by a previous property owner.
I don’t mind going out to look at bones. It gives me a chance to interact with the public in a way that doesn’t involve me explaining their loved one’s cause and manner of death. And besides, so far no one has presented me with anything that was actually a human bone. However, sometimes I am dealt a wild card.
Last week, I was called out to a rural part of my county for a discovered bone. I wasn’t busy so I went ahead and drove out to the location, only to find that the sheriff’s deputy that had originally made contact with the property owners and then called me in… he was was long gone. I rolled up to the location he gave me and I didn’t see a deputy vehicle anywhere. I called him up to ask if I had the address right and he said he was sorry, but he had to leave. There was a big car accident nearby (non-fatal, he assured me) and the accident trumped the bone discovery. “But the property owners are expecting you”. He said. “They’ll take you out to the bone.”
That’s how I came to be perched on the back of an ATV, getting carried off into the woods with a couple of complete strangers. I had my scene bag and some suppplies with me, but otherwise I was defenseless and completely at the mercy of these folks… who seemed very nice and earnest. But still, for some reason whenever I am being led into a densely wooded area by strangers, I can’t shake the suspicion that they’re taking me out there to kill me. We parked the ATV and hiked into a dry river bed on the edge of their property. On the way into the woodlands they gushed about how they had just moved to the area and how much they loved exploring their new property and , my my, isn’t the fall foliage lovely? Meanwhile I was following them at a safe distance and evaluating their body mass, muscle-tone and overall fightability i case I had to fend them off and then run for my truck…. because I don’t always ASSUME the worst, but I like to be prepared for it… just in case. #MedicalExaminerProblems
My caution was completely forgotten though when they pointed out the bone.
It was utterly magnificent… and marvelously weird. Here, take a look:
For those of you who can’t see it too well (because this is a crappy picture taken with my cell-phone) That’s a long bone shaft with two articulated phalanges, most likely tarsals… OR, in daily-speak. What you have there is a distal limb- either a front leg or a back leg, with two toes still attached… and in case you hadn’t already picked up on this, No, it’s most decidedly NOT human.
So… it’s weird because it’s actually really big. This picture doesn’t do it justice because I was in a hurry to get my hands on it and I forgot to put something down next to it to offer scale comparison. But this little gem here is a DENSE bone, and it’s BIG. About 1.5 times the length of an average adult human radius (imagine elbow to your wrist). Length-wise it’s comparable to an average adult human femur (thigh to your knee) but it’s way too thick and the morphology (General shape) is all wrong. And by the way, yes, I did say there are two toes there… toes that are disproportionately big compared to the rest of the bone… and there’s only two. There no talus (heel bone) and it didn’t really look like it used to have one and it just fell off or was chewed off by an animal. All this to say, I had absolutely no fucking CLUE where the hell this bone came from. It was probably a quadruped, but other than that, the animal that yielded himself to the hereafter and thereby left this bone in a dry river bed… was completely outside my realm of experience. Leading me to tell the couple who found it that it was from a Minotaur.
They blinked at me.
“Either that or it’s Sasquatch.”
Seriously, though, I followed that up with telling them that I really wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew it wasn’t human and therefore, it was of no LEGAL interest to the county and/or state. However, since it was something of a mystery, I would be happy to take it off their hands and deliver it to the state forensic anthropologist who liked to get weird animal bones for the sake of comparison and study. She might know what it was. They were, above all, delighted to hear that there weren’t human remains scattered on their new real-estate acquisition. And they were really enthusiastic to hear what the bone was… as was the sheriff’s deputy who I called back to tell him that while he had been dealing with his auto-wreck, I had determined that the bone was non-human.
“Well, if you ever find out what it is, let me know,” he said. “That shit was way weird.”
I packed up the bone in a paper bag and stowed it in the county vehicle, switching it to my own vehicle at the end of shift because I was planning to head down to the state office to do some more “cutting” on my day off and I figured I’d deliver it to the anthropologist at that time.
I called her before the end of my shift and when she answered, I couldn’t help but gleefully tell her that a dragon bone had been found in our county. (Quickly followed by an explanation that , it wasn’t REALLY a dragon bone. I simply had no idea what kind of bone it WAS….because I don’t think she would have picked up on that if I hadn’t told her.)
“Cool!” she chirped in response. “Bring it on in! I can’t wait to see it!”
It took some time, but when I finally did bring the bone in to Dr. Tilly, she was utterly mystified as well. “I really have no idea what it is,” she murmured. “I think it really IS a dragon bone.”
The bone actually ended up languishing in my car for a couple of days because I didn’t get down to the state as soon as I thought I would. I had a bunch of errands to run and mundane tasks to attend to. The dragon bone made my car stink a little bit, but I didn’t notice until a passenger pointed it out… because everything smells like death to me… all the time #MedicalExaminerProblems.
Maybe 24 hours later, I was hanging out with my dog, having a nice little free evening, in which I planned to watch some Netflix, eat some chocolate and basically sleep for a good eight or nine hours. I meandered over to my dog’s crate where he was chilling and noted with some dismay that he had puked up his breakfast from earlier in the day.
“What’s the matter, little buddy?” I asked as I picked him up and carried him over to the bed where there was more light. As though in response to the question, my petite terrier-mix rescue pup promptly yarked up a whole gut-full of fluid, foam and bile. “Holy shit!” I shrieked, as the whole mess dumped right onto the clean sheets. I quickly put the dog on the floor and whisked the sheets into a wadded-up knot before the fluids could seep into the mattress pad. Then I picked up my dog and headed for the door… not really a moment of hesitation. I know my dog and I’ve seen him vomit up any number of substances. Whatever the hell this business was, it wasn’t benign and it wasn’t normal or okay. My little dog seemed somnolent almost to the point of unconsciousness. His breathing was sporadic and shallow and he only managed to wag his tail weakly at me as I interrogated him for info. Much as I hated the thought, we were headed to the 24-hour emergency vet.
The wait was agonizing. After I showed up at their door in my pajamas with a frantic explanation of his symptoms, the vet clinic staff spirited my little dog away for evaluation and treatment. Despite the fact that I was the only person in the place at midnight, it still took them an hour to come talk to me, and when they did, the conversation wasn’t exactly enlightening.
“Given his presentation, we think it may be some kind of ingestion. Can you think of anything he might have eaten in the last couple of days that might have been bad for him?”
I couldn’t think of anything he had eaten other than his food, which had all been vomited up. The vet said that she had given him some anti-nausea meds, but she thought the best course of action was to perform an abdominal x-ray to see what was in there.
Another 2 hours passed, during which I completed every cross-word puzzle in the waiting room. The vet reappeared and informed me that there seemed to be something spongy in my dog’s colon. “It might be stuffing from a stuffed animal or something… but it’s causing a bowel obstruction. That’s where all the vomiting came from.”
“Okay,” I prompted. “So, what can we do about that? He doesn’t need surgery, does he?”
“No,” she said. “It’s managed to get through his small intestine, which is GOOD. Now we just have to get it out of his large intestine. We’ll give him repeated enemas until it comes out… Usually it only takes one, but it might take up to three. We’ll sedate him first.”
“Okay, that’s fine, great. Do whatever you have to.”
Another two hours and it was now inching closer to 5 a.m. when a vet technician came to the front desk and started doing some paperwork.
“Hey,” I called to him as I stumbled up from my chair. “What’s going on with my dog? Is he okay? Did the stuff come out?”
The vet tech looked at me as though I was a ragged-haired, wild-eyed, sleep-deprived crazy person… strange.
“The doctor will be out in a second to let you know what’s going on,” He said haughtily.
When the doctor did come out, a few minutes later, she had a quizzical expression on her face.
“Did it come out? What was it?” I pleaded.
“Well, we’re not sure…” she said. “It turned out to be these little white pellet-like things. It looked spongy on the x-ray because these little pellets were suspended in his fecal matter. I’m really not certain what they were.”
“Jeez,” I gaped. “You don’t think they were fertizier pellets or anything, do you?”
“No… they were hard… like they might have been bone or something. Did he have a bone?”
“Oh my GOD…” I whispered, the truth finally hitting home. “It was the dragon bone…”
Suddenly, I remembered. I had taken my little dog to his regular vet to get shots right after the end of my last shift… and hadn’t I run into a Starbucks really quick to grab a cup of coffee? And hadn’t that bone been sitting on the floor of the front seat? And hadn’t it smelled… unpleasant by human standards…but probably downright delectable to a dog? AND hadn’t I noticed a hole in the bag when I dropped it off for the anthropologist… a little ragged hole that I passed off as being from a rough edge of the bone cutting through the paper as I wrapped it up? Couldn’t that little hole have been caused by a set of little teeth… belonging to a little dog… who just racked up a BIG vet bill?
I have no idea what kind of bone my dog at chewed on. That plugged up his little guts. I’ve called Dr. Tilly a few times, asking her if she’s figured it out yet… and I suspect she thinks my preoccupation with identifying this obviously-non-human bone is a little… obsessive.
What can I say? If my dog consumed the tissue of a mystical animal… any number of things may happen… so now, here I sit… staring at my little 10-pound terrier mix, waiting for the bomb to drop. For all I know, at any moment he might sprout wings and… horns… and start flying around the apartment… breathing fire all over the place… Furious and vengeful because I’m the bitch who gave the go ahead for him to have foreign items inserted in his little puppy-butt. “Do whatever you have to do” I told them. When my dog turns into a dragon, he’s gonna kill me…
… any second now…