Sometimes, in life… we are asked to do thing we don’t like. As an adult we come to terms with those instances and muscle through because that’s what life is… soldering on even when you don’t want to. Fortunately, this was not one of those times.
Right now, at work, we have a new administrator… someone who is still wet behind the ears and hoping to make his mark as being a really hard-nosed go-getter. (I’ve never met the dude myself… this is just what I’ve benn told) He wants everyone to know that he’s watching and evaluating and considering… and his ambitious young eye recently turned to the medical examiner’s office. He’s decided he doesn’t understand how our schedules work and figures we might be working too little and getting paid too much. One of our program managers, in an effort to justify our income, has asked that each of us perhaps document a day’s activities while on shift… so she might have something to show this steely-eyed whipper-snapper to prove that the medical examiners actually ARE worth the pittance we are being paid.
My response to this request was, “You want me to write about my job? Oh no! PLEASE don’t throw me into that, there briar-patch!”
So here’s what the administrator got… I’m not sure if I expect to be promoted or fired:
-09:00- I wake up. This represents a late start for me, but this was my second 24 hours out of 48. The previous evening… Or rather…morning… As in somewhere between midnight and 9 a.m. … I was awoken 3 times by St. Jerome’s hospital, calling to report deaths that had occurred in the emergency apartment. The third time, I try to affect a little humor and I say to the charge nurse: “Wow! Another one? What are you guys putting in your I.V.s over there?”
She does not laugh.
Anyway, each of these calls takes up approximately a half hour of time since every question that I ask about the given decedent is met with the answer: “I don’t know… Let me check…”
The questions haven’t changed… In the 5 years since my hiring date… they haven’t changed. I spend an additional 15 minutes of the early morning staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, wondering why everyone always seems so shocked when I ask for the decedent’s name.
-09:30- I go to Starbucks to get a morning “cup of ambition” (Thank you Dolly Parton). While there, I run into the county epidemiologist who tells me she left some homemade cookies on the Medical Examiner desk for me and my co-workers. I am giddy with anticipation…. Cookies!
-09:40- Upon my arrival at our cubicle in the public services building, there are no cookies on my desk… Or anywhere in the cubicle, I know because I spend 5 minutes frantically tearing through every possible hiding place where these alleged cookies might be lurking. I ask our secretary about these cookies. She unapologetically states that, despite the fact that she has a huge bag of leftover Halloween candy in her desk, and a dish of this candy prominently displayed ON her desk… She and our program supervisor ate the cookies that had been left on the medical examiners’ desk. “I didn’t know when you’d be coming in…” She states. “You guys aren’t here very often and I didn’t think food should be left on your desk.”
Never mind the fact that there is a dish of food permanently stationed on her desk at all times.
I say nothing but remind myself that I know how to dispose of bodies… If it should come to that…
-09:45 until 12 noon- I spend the next few hours at the office. I type up the cases from last night, which takes up roughly 30 minutes apiece. I also read through and summarize some medical records that I received from a hospital the day before regarding a case from my last shift. Recognizing that these records aren’t really sufficient, I fax over a request to the decedent’s primary care provider. Doctor’s offices are notoriously slow about sending records… I might get them next week. I also return a call to a funeral home regarding another doctor who’s supposed to sign a death certificate. The doctor doesn’t want to do it, which happens often, but I’m not sure why. They act like we’re asking them to go state’s evidence on the mob or something. I call the doctor’s office and leave a message telling him that I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.
-12:30- I go home (a 5 minute walk) and eat lunch… an apple with almond butter and a power bar.
-12:50- I get called to the scene of a death. A 63 year-old gentleman who lived alone and apparently hated going to see doctors… despite his gout, pre-diabetes, peripheral neuropathy and heart disease. Instead, he has been self-medicating with a steady diet of marijuana and porn. This treatment has not been terribly effective, since his foot and leg pain were evidently so severe that he just sat in his easy-chair in front of the television, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka. In fact, his foot pain was so bad, rather than get up to use the bathroom, he would relieve himself in old juice bottles that had stacked up around him like a fortress. He had been deceased for minimum of 3 weeks, judging by the post mortem changes. The house smells awesome. I briefly consider a career change to a Starbucks barista… I bet that smells good.
-12:50- While I’m at the wonderfully fragrant house, I get a phone call from a Washington County Detective. He needs help facilitating the fingerprinting of a dead body that is currently at the state office.
-13:40- While still at the scene, where the ambient fragrance of the dead guy and his urine has thoroughly wormed it’s way into my hair (so I’ll be smelling it all day now) I get another call from a funeral home, asking for help finding a doctor to sign another death certificate.
-14:00– I release the dead guy from the scene and drive to Planet Fitness… figuring that if I can’t smell good, I’d better look good. While driving to the gym, I return the call to the funeral home. I also do some arranging and finagling and the fingerprinting gets scheduled to take place tomorrow morning.
-14:10- At the gym, no one wants to use the treadmills next to mine… I am not surprised.
-14:40- While sweating my brains out, I am paged to call an Oswald County officer who’s at the scene of a death. The decedent is 55 years old and has a phenomenal medical history. There is no trauma and nothing suspicious about the death so I release the decedent from the scene to the on-call funeral home. However, no one has any access to the next of kin. The guy allegedly has two kids who live in Utah. The police officer says he’ll get back to me about whether or not they manage to make contact with these kids. (Spoiler alert: the officer never gets back to me… one way or the other… I am not surprised) This whole interaction takes about 40 minutes.
-16:00- While I am driving back home, I get a call from the local organ donation service about the above-mentioned 55 year old. I call them and tell them that if I were in need of retinas, I certainly wouldn’t want his… he had a history of drug abuse and alcoholism… additionally, there’s no next of kin to ask for permission to donate.
-16:30- I get called to a city on the edge of the county for a death. The decedent is a 43-year-old woman who has had multiple interactions with the police in the past. She was known for having paranoid delusions and would often call them to come and clear the aliens out of her apartment. The officer tells me she has killed herself. I ask how he knows that. The officer admits that he can’t be sure… because the decedent has been deceased for no less than a month and a half and no one was willing to get close enough to the corpse to actually ascertain a possible cause of death.
-16:40 (or so)- On my way to the scene of the 43-year-old woman, I get a page stating that a woman by the name of “Melinda” called the office with a series of questions for a medical examiner. When I call her back during my drive, Melinda tells me that she is 61, she lives alone and she wants to know what will happen to her when she dies… not in a metaphysical sense… she wants to know how, exactly she would be found and what would happen to her body… since she doesn’t have any family. I take Melinda through the general processes involved in a death where the decedent has no next of kin. Melinda is a talker… and she’s clearly happy to have someone listening. It becomes more and more obvious that Melinda’s solitude in the world is getting to her because with every answer that I give to her questions… she launches into a 5 to10 minute long soliloquy about her life. Moreover, English is not Melinda’s first language so due to her poor grammar and thick accent, I can barely understand what’s she’s saying. I pray that I’m making the appropriately sympathetic responses because half of what she says is a complete loss. It takes a while… and if I had anything else to do I’d excuse myself from the conversation. But I figure what the hell. I’m stuck in traffic on the interstate and Melinda clearly needs someone to talk to.
-17:15- I finally arrive at the scene of my latest death and as I heave myself out of the county vehicle… is it my imagination… or do I smell the unmistakable odor of human decomposition? It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been able to smell a body from the street… It’s something that the TV shows always get wrong, I muse to myself as I unload my bags and equipment. Those murder mysteries and crime dramas always show the lead characters bent over, face deep in dead bodies as though the scent of putrefaction were barely more troublesome than someone eating a garlicky pizza. The truth is even the most wizened veterans cannot abide the odor of a decomposition. We only withstand it because we’re paid to do so… It’s vile. Never is that fact more obvious than right as I walk into the residence of this decedent, the 43 year old who hasn’t been seen for 6 weeks. She appears to have barricaded herself into her apartment by wedging a large bookcase against the front door. Then she hid under her bed with a wide array of mind-altering substances nearby. She’s dressed in a bizarre arrangement of socks and scarves and she looks as though she stumbled off the set of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video… she’s green, oozing with maggots and almost mummified. One of the police officers at the scene is a rookie and much to the delight of the other officers at the scene, I have this newbie help me roll the body over so I can examine her back for injuries. Not only is this his first decomp… it’s his first dead body. He gags a couple of times, but manages to keep his lunch down. The force is strong with this one.
All the same, I briefly consider a career change to wedding consultant… I can handle vomiting people, right?
I am at this scene for 3 hours, which actually isn’t that bad. I’ve been on homicide scenes for up to 12 hours in the past. The police and I spend that time sifting through the utterly trashed apartment, counting prescription pills and trying to make sense of this woman’s final hours. In the midst of this process:
-18:30- I get a call from a nursing home. They are calling to report a death to me. “Just to let me know,” they say… because they’ve already notified the family and called the funeral home. I have to explain to the nursing home that unless their patient was in hospice, they can’t release the body to the funeral home and they have to treat the death the same as any other… meaning they still have to call 911, there still must be an investigation… even if the decedent had a DNR. They sound flabbergasted. They’re so flabbergasted that it takes me about 20 minutes to convince them that I know what I’m talking about and they need to call non-emergency dispatch.
-19:20- We’re still counting pills at the scene when we hear from dispatch that the officers who were sent to notify our decedent’s mother of the death have come up dry. The last known address was a wash. Mom’s not there anymore, she moved away two years ago. We only have a phone number. The police with me at the scene look panicked. I tell them not to worry, that I will make the call. I’ve done it before. Back when I was an intern in Arizona, we ONLY did phone notifications… none of this “face-to-face” or “in-person” notification business. I got to be pretty good at ruining people’s days as gently as possible… and since I cut my professional teeth making such calls, I dial the number and make it happen. All things considered, Mom takes the news of her daughter’s death pretty well… Even when I tell her that her daughter has been dead for quite a while and the family probably shouldn’t have any sort of viewing… let alone an open casket. She tells me she’s surprised… but also not surprised. This is a common reaction. Still, I consider a career change to an STD clinic nurse… those phone calls HAVE TO be easier… right?
-20:10- I’m literally walking past the requisite crowd of curious neighbors as I leave the scene of the decomp when the pager goes off again. Instead of going to get something to eat like I was planning, (When is the last time I ate? Was it Starbucks? I’m not sure. I would know if I’d had any cookies but… well… you know…) I am now going to a different town in my county where a morbidly obese gentleman was found deceased in his room by his roommate. Apparently, I wasn’t able to hide my exasperation at having to go to another scene from the officer who called me… I know this because he takes pity on me and has a fellow officer run out and grab me a cup of coffee before I arrive at this next scene. Coffee is better than cookies! I think to myself as I gulp it down upon my arrival. And someone needs to give the Oswald County cops a raise! The death is fairly benign, but it appears the decedent didn’t have a primary physician so his medical history and exact cause of death is a bit hazy. The roommate who found him tells us that he was an insufferable alcoholic who drank all the time. But we have to temper this information with the fact that this roommate’s first order of business upon finding the decedent… was to get completely shit-faced herself. She’s not exactly what you’d call a reliable historian. Reliable historians don’t wave half-empty bottles of Jim Beam in your face while you’re trying to interview them.
During this scene investigation, the officer with me gets a call from the decedent’s family. Apparently, the roommate took it upon herself to call and notify them of the death. The family is understandably upset, however their sadness also has a slight tinge of anger and suspicion. They believe the roommate’s adult granddaughter… who never liked the decedent and often told her grandmother to kick him out… somehow murdered the decedent. I’m not sure where they got this idea… likely from an episode of CSI, because in the real world disliking someone doesn’t equate to being their murderer. Still, they insist on talking to me and airing their belief that the granddaughter poisoned the decedent’s food or something. Their allegation has no basis in reality, but because they threw it out there, the officer and I have to consider the possibility… I’m just glad the family didn’t claim that the decedent was kidnapped by aliens and the body left in his place was a ringer. I have no idea how we’d disprove THAT.
-22:13- While I’m still dealing with the dead guy, his drunken roommate, the irate granddaughter (who showed up to revel in her enemy’s demise) and the suspicious family… I get another death call. This is an elderly woman at St. Jerome’s hospital. Her death is not terribly complicated, but, as always, the nurse with whom I speak has absolutely no information on the decedent. The nurse gives the usual excuses for this: She just came on shift and was told to call the M.E. The decedent wasn’t her patient. She can’t find anything in the chart etc. etc. I hear these excuses ALL THE TIME…. Leading me to believe that nursing shifts at the hospital must be about 5 minutes long- because everyone is always “just coming on”. There’s one mysterious nurse who’s in charge of all the patients and who never calls us because we ONLY get called by nurses who claim the dead patient isn’t “theirs”… and perhaps the hospital charts are written in Sanskrit… About 30 minutes go by while I try to make heads or tails of this conversation
In the mean-time, I overhear on the officer’s radio that an ambulance is being dispatched to the local Hannaford Supermarket for a heroin overdose in the bathroom. Apparently, the officer sees my face as I hear this because he immediately switches his radio feed to his ear-piece and tells me not to worry about it… so I don’t. If the guy in the Hannaford’s bathroom is dead and I’m about to be dispatched there… the officer would tell me, right?
-22:40- I am leaving the scene of the dysfunctional roommate call after having drawn blood for toxicology… at the request of the family. Because apparently they cannot be dissuaded from their theory that the roommate’s granddaughter is a criminal mastermind. (Having met her, I am disinclined to agree. She doesn’t strike me as being overly clever… just really loud) As I crawl back into the county truck, my pager goes off again. I am being dispatched to a deceased overdose in the bathroom of the local Fred Meyer. The officer who assured me “not to worry” is nowhere to be seen. Someone needs to fire every patrol officer in Oswald County! I rage to myself as I put the truck in drive and proceed to the Hannaford’s.
-22:50- When I get there, the store is about 10 minutes from closing. There are a few curious customers still milling about and a handful of store employees. They are all gathered close by the hallway where the bathrooms can be found. Anyone who isn’t a cop looks frightened and lost… and that’s probably the only thing that keeps me from purchasing a rotisserie chicken and devouring the entire bird right there using only my hands and teeth… I figure these fine citizens are already traumatized enough.
The deceased young man in the bathroom does not have any illicit substances on him, nor is there a syringe present. The young man’s cell-phone is also missing. However we do find a syringe cap, as well as a used alcohol wipe… which is weird because most heroin addicts don’t bother to swab their skin clean before injecting. So maybe this guy was… I don’t know… a really clean heroin user. The lack of evidence, and lack of cell phone… along with the fact that the bathroom door was unlocked when the guy was found, all of this indicates that when he overdosed someone was in the bathroom with him. Doubtless, when the young man went unconscious and couldn’t be roused, this other person grabbed any evidence that could link them to the incident and took off. The police take custody of security camera recordings in the hopes they might see who accompanied the young man into the bathroom… but no one is holding their breath… except the dead guy. He’s going to be holding it for a long time.
I perform a blood draw and a urine draw so that we can conduct toxicology on this case. I take the requisite pictures. And in about 2 hours, I’m leaving the scene, climbing into the county truck when the pager goes off again
-00:30- St. Jerome’s has another death. He’s 63 years old with a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. I blearily write down notes in my notebook… each letter I write looks vaguely like a dancing stick figure at a rave. I hope I’ll be able to read my writing tomorrow when I find myself mired in paperwork purgatory.
-00:50- I am driving away from the Hannaford’s and I’m halfway home when my pager goes off again. I go ahead and cuss a few times because I think I’ve earned it and call the number on the pager to find it’s one of the officers at the Hannford’s call. I left my camera there. I can see my home from where I am, but turn the truck around to drive back the way I came. The officer offers to meet me halfway and deliver the camera to me in the parking lot of an auto-parts store. Just like that, the Oswald County Sheriff’s department is, once again, the greatest law enforcement agency in all the world.
When the officer and I meet in the parking lot, I ramble out some smeared, bleary-eyed expression of gratitude and she smiles… because she knows. Everyone in the county has been listening to the dead bodies roll in over the radio.
-01:00 to 02:00- Even though I should probably go to bed, I stay up and eat some dinner (breakfast?) and get some preliminary case-file writing done… just so I have an outline to follow tomorrow when all of the report writing and phone-calling begins in earnest. Each case (both partials and full, alike) represents anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours of follow up work… depending on the complexity of the story, the availability of the next of kin and the cooperation of multiple other agencies… including, but not limited to law enforcement, hospitals, physicians, funeral homes etc.
At about 2 a.m. I fall into bed… and dream of my new career… as a professional aerobics instructor. I bet I’d be good at that…