The Little Things

So… not everything that happens at the medical examiner’s office is an epic disaster… at least not to us… I mean, we understand that what other people consider an epic disaster is actually a pretty slow Tuesday around here.

disaster

another day… another mass casualty incident

So, I suppose what I mean to say is that, not every incident turns into an existential crisis for yours truly. One of the main questions people ask when they find out I’m a medical examiner is: “Woah, is that anything like what you see on TV?” And I have to tell them that the REAL medical examiner experience is less “CSI” and more “Parks and Recreation” Sometimes, funny and weird shit just happens… and it doesn’t send anyone into a metaphysical melt-down.  So, taking a break from my incredibly strange dating life, here are a couple of more-benign tales:

-THE CSI EFFECT a.k.a. The Starfish Phenomenon-

csi-las-vegas.jpg

Note- all these people are WAY too clean to be the real thing

Murder is a big crowd-pleaser. It seems that for any tale to be considered interesting, someone has to be dead, someone else must have murdered them… and someone has to be naked. Such plots are the stuff that tend to drive story-lines right into the awards season.  So-and-so was brutally killed and Thus-and-such processed their grief by going on a rampage… or revolting against an unjust government… or by writing a symphony… or by meeting someone else and falling in love against all their instincts… or by taking a spaceship to join a new human colony on Mars… and so on and so on.

A less popular story is that people generally just die because they’re sick and/or old.

No one likes that story. It’s not terribly compelling…

… Or it’s not “sexy” in Hollywood-speak

Or here’s another one.  People generally just die because they’re sick and/or old… and they are often naked when their death occurs.

No one likes that story either, not even the police… as Henry found out on his last shift.

I usually come on shift right after Henry. And this past week, I arrived at the office to find Henry sitting in our cubicle, staring at his unfinished case file on the computer screen and shaking his head in disbelief.  He glanced up as I approached and sighed.

“The cops are just dying for a homicide…”

“How so,” I asked, although I was already somewhat familiar with the tale… because it’s not a new one.  Law enforcement is always on the lookout for something to solve; a homicide, a robbery, a crossword puzzle…

Henry launched into his tale of an older woman who had been found deceased in her bed by her roommate.  This deceased woman was in her late 60’s, was known to have a host of medical problems and, unfortunately for everyone involved, she was partially undressed when her body was discovered.  The whole “partially undressed” tid-bit was enough to send the local police into a frenzy of theorizing.  Clearly, they decided, someone else had done this.  She had obviously been sexually assaulted and then murdered… or murdered and then sexually assaulted… or maybe she had died DURING the sexual assault. Why else would she be partially naked?

Consider this blog post your official notification that people frequently undress when they’re feeling sick, or crazy, or like they’re about to die.

I first learned this concept as a paramedic student after spending a day pronouncing a wide array of naked people, all of whom were positioned in such a way that the first thing that we saw when we walked in the room was their dead… naked… butt.

My paramedic field instructor put it best as he was explaining this phenomenon to me during a break in our day:

“I don’t know what it is…” he pondered as he chewed on his slurpee-straw like a wizened old philosopher working a pipe. “But when people feel death coming on, the first thing they do is strip down and point their purple star-fish right at the door.”

Memorable, right?

Well, no one told the cops in our county about what shall forever be known as “The Starfish Phenomenon”.  Because they took this woman’s near-nudity and ran with it.

According to Henry, he stood by in horrified fascination as the roomful of police officers at the scene of this death spun an ever more elaborate tale as to how this woman came to be both partially dis-robed AND dead. First they blamed the roommate, then they decided the family must be in on it. Maybe she had been drugged.  Was it possible it was an assault gone wrong? Could she have been smothered with a pillow during the attack?  That must be why there were no marks on her!

Henry did his best to reel them in.  He explained how her positioning wasn’t consistent with an assault, pointing out that in order to make the scheme work, her attacker would have had to contend with the adult diaper our decedent was wearing.  Then Henry showed them both the dead woman’s anus AND vagina, describing how there were no abrasions to suggest that this woman had in any way been… fucked with. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it)

The police remained unconvinced and called out the detectives who jumped on the homicide bandwagon like they were writing a script for a summer blockbuster.  Meanwhile, Henry conducted his investigation and discovered that although this woman hid diabetes, there were no diabetic supplies or medications in the house… indicating she had been blissfully indifferent towards a disease that’s… generally not something one should ignore. Furthermore, he noted that the whites of the dead woman’s eyes were virtually banana-yellow.  This discoloration is called jaundice and it’s an indicator that the woman was in the final throes of liver failure when she passed.  AND, in addition to yellow discoloration to the eyes and skin… one of the OTHER major symptoms of liver failure, is delirium… which frequently presents as people peeling their clothes off.

Henry quietly called the body-removal team and released the decedent to a funeral home.  He excused himself from the scene as the detectives were beginning to question the roommate.

“Seriously,” he marveled as he recounted the story to me. “They worked themselves into such a lather, I’m not even sure they noticed I left.”

-WATCH YOUR MOUTH-

I’m supposed to be indifferent… or at the very most, I’m supposed to be distantly curious… benignly interested, vaguely intrigued.  My emotions are not supposed to enter the scenario when I’m working. I’m an investigator, a blank slate.  The story of a death is supposed to write itself on the empty pages of my perception and all I do is watch and record.

But the fact is, I’m a person and I’m subject to the emotional climate of a given situation juts like anyone else. And there’s very little that pisses me off as much as suicides.

I understand… more than I’d like to say… how one’s life can become so painful that the only apparent relief from the suffering is to simply cash in your chips and leave the corporeal table.  I get it.  Life fucking sucks… deeply and frequently.  That said, I find it incredibly difficult to have sympathy for the dead when I have to deal with the aftermath of their demise… particularly when that aftermath includes a shattered family that will spend the rest of their lives trying to shed the spirit-crushing weight of this event. Keeping a carefully bland and distantly sympathetic expression on your face can be quite the Herculean feat when the dead guys wife has a story that really paints the guy as being a supremely self-absorbed, responsibility-dodging, infantile douche-bag. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, the last thing this guy did before deciding to off himself, was assault his wife as she was trying to leave him.

As a woman who’s had to deal with alcoholic significant others… It made my blood boil. Seriously, I was pricklier than a porcupine in a mosh-pit as I excused myself from her company and went into the family home to assess the physical state of said alcoholic.

It was a mess. Dude had opted to off himself with a high-caliber fire-arm and hollow-tip ammo right through his thick skull. The floor of the bathroom was a veritable swamp of blood and brain matter. On the counter-top was a hastily scrawled note in the decedent’s hand, stating that he was “going to do everyone a favor” and kill himself….

…Small note here… If you’re really going to kill yourself as a “favor” to your loved ones, maybe think about doing it in a fashion that ISN’T going to result in a $3000.00 bio-hazard clean-up… because neither the medical examiners, the fire department nor the police are responsible for picking your skull fragments out of the ceiling. Your FAMILY has to deal with that. So try showing a little fucking consideration… m’kay?

Seriously? You couldn’t find a tarp or something?

It was late and I was tired. I don’t know, maybe it was the mess he’d left, both in an emotional and a janitorial sense… maybe it was the fact that I knew this event would FOREVER taint Christmases to come for his children… maybe it just pissed me off to see another now-single mother trying to figure out how she was going to get herself and her children through this, latest shit-show inflicted upon them by an alcoholic father. Regardless, as I braced myself for the task of examining the body and sifting through all the goop to try and find a bullet casing, I couldn’t hold back:

“Asshole…” I muttered at the corpse under my breath.

-because sometimes I’m just NOT the bigger person. Sometimes the story gets to me and I can’t help but pass judgment. I fucking human, man! What the hell do you want from me?

If you’re offended, read on. Because I definitely got my just desserts on that one.

I wedged myself into the bathroom, tiptoeing around the vast puddle of bodily fluids and angling myself over the decedent like I was playing a macabre game of Twister. Balancing delicately as I straddled the guy’s shoulders, I began my official “external exam”. The investigating police officers watched in gaping, horror as I moved my hands over the decedent’s ruined, malleable head, broad shoulders, stiffening limbs… Like they couldn’t quite believe I was actually touching him.

(Why, you may ask. Why bother looking at all that stuff if there was a big-ass hole in his head and so much blood that you could hydro-plane a HUMVEE? Wouldn’t his cause of death be obvious? You’d think that, wouldn’t you? WELL gunshot wounds to the head are what I refer to as “distracting injuries”. Sure the guy may have a bullet in his head… but he may also have a bullet in his chest. So yeah, I give the cops grief for imaginatively turning EVERYTHING into a homicide. But one mustn’t discount the possibility that someone may have put that bullet in his already-deceased head, hoping no one would notice his actual fatal injury. The same thing happens on the ambulance- “distracting injuries”. Paramedics are so busy fiddling with someone’s broken ankle that they fail to notice their patient is also having a cataclysmic heart attack.

Stick with me , kids! I’ll teach you everything I know! Then you, too can become a cranky, judgmental, disillusioned government employee who wrestles with soggy dead-bodies over the holidays)

Anyway, once I was finished with his front, I had to roll the guy over to take a look at his back. No small feat since he outweighed me almost two-to-one and we were stuffed into the cramped bathroom so tightly I could practically taste the liquor he had been drinking, pre-mortem. The police were of limited help, seeing as how the two I had with me were looking a little nauseated and both were large enough that had they attempted to join me in the bathroom, one of us would have had to literally stand on the corpse, and another would be relegated to standing in the blood-puddle.

No matter, I’m pretty good at rolling a corpse on my own and I had indignant rage fueling me. I seized one of the dead guy’s arms and grabbed a handful of his belt and heaved as hard as I could.

I’m still not altogether sure how it happened. The fact is, the guy was heavy, stiff and slippery… a trifecta of inconvenience. The grip that I had on the dead-guy’s wrist slipped… I mean, greased watermelon-slipped. And I was bent over him in an attempt to lower my center of gravity to ease the movement. Unfortunately, this put me within arm’s reach… because the arm slipped, and my face was right in it’s path as it ricocheted back to the ground- smacking me square across the jaw and leaving a spectacular explosion of blood, cerebro-spinal fluid and brain matter, slathered across my mouth and cheek.

“Oh FUCK!” I hollered as I leapt free of the dead dude’s rasp and flailed toward the sink. The police hadn’t been watching, but turned at my outburst to find me hunched over the sink, dousing my blood-smeared face with scalding hot water. Gathering the gist of what had just happened, they awkwardly stood there, trying to think of something to say… finally blurting out:

“Uh, do you want a towel?”

“Jesus-fucking-christ, man,” I gasped as the outer-most layer of epidermis melted off my face. “Yes… fuck! Yes, I’d love a towel!”

For reasons unknown to me, both officers darted away to ask the decedent’s widow for a towel. I guess it was a team effort… which was fine, because it gave me a chance to have a little talk with my assailant.

“Very funny, asshole,” I growled at him over my shoulder, before sighing and following with: “Okay, okay… I suppose I deserved that one. Call it even?”

He didn’t say anything.

As a rule, I don’t either. I rarely talk to my dead bodies, and typically it’s just a word or two when I do: “I’m really sorry, dude.” or “Okay, time to go.” I don’t want them to get confused about whether or not they’re still alive, and I really don’t want them thinking that I’m available for extensive conversations and no, they may not follow me home.

Anyway, this time I talked… he answered.

They say you shouldn’t talk smack about someone who isn’t there to defend himself.

Heh, get it? Talk-Smack.

I won’t make that mistake again.

Advertisements

600 Pablos

I’m not sure where I first heard this story…

… probably church.

It has that greeting-card, anecdotal type of sentiment that pastors like to employ when they want to dandle your heart on their knee like a dim-witted toddler.

Of course,  I still remember the story… and now I’m telling it to you, which would indicate that whatever pastor it was who planted this tale in my brain… he knew his business.  He must have made an impression because I still remember.  It goes like this:

A father and son had a falling out- I don’t recall the details.  I don’t think they matter.  It’s an old story, told a million times over: A father and son had a falling out over something.  Maybe it was money, or someone didn’t approve of someone else’s choices.  How many ways are there for a family to fracture? Anyway, the son’s name was Pablo.  I remember that much.

Pablo and his father went their separate ways… most likely after a torrent of angry words, accusations, resentments and so on… all stacking up like boxes of ugly memorabilia that no one wants, but can’t bring themselves to throw away.  Years go by and Pablo and his father soften, but don’t know how to go about reconciling.  They’ve lost touch. Phone numbers change, people move… and then move again… keep moving. The silvery-thin threads that connect them, disintegrate. Before they know it, Pablo and his father couldn’t reach one another even if they wanted to… and that’s the thing, they DO want to.  Each of them has, in turn, come to understand that the reasons for their rift are utterly unimportant.  Their aggravations and arguments are inconsequential when compared with the enormity of losing each other forever.

prodigal

a.k.a. “Pablo and his Dad

In desperation, one day, the father takes out a full-page ad in the newspaper.  “Pablo,” it reads. “All is forgiven.  Please come home.  Meet me in the town-square at noon on Sunday. -Papa”

That Sunday, the father goes to the town-square and he’s astonished to find no less than 600 men… all named Pablo, all looking for their fathers… all hoping to mend the schism.

Such is the human desire for reconciliation… for forgiveness… for connection.

600 Pablos.

Maybe that’s why I remember the story so well.  It occurred to me that if I should ever find myself in a band (again), I’d want to name it “600 Pablos”.

Anyway,

It’s the holidays.  At the medical examiner’s office, that usually only means one thing: every death we deal with is going to be worse than usual.  Every relationship we encounter is going to have its temperature set to “high”.  The pressure is on.  Thanksgiving is just disappearing in our rear-view, and soon comes Christmas and New Year’s and all the anger and desolation that is intrinsic to either having a family… or not having one.  I think the worst calls of my career have always happened on holidays, not necessarily because the calls themselves were so different or traumatic, but rather because during the calls, you realize that THIS holiday will forever be ruined for THIS family because it will always be tainted by THIS death.

deaths xmas

… he knows if you’ve been bad or good…

One time I had a dude commit suicide the day before Thanksgiving.  He shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle in his garage and his teen-aged son found him like that:  Skull fragments, brain matter and blood everywhere.  Obviously, the family was inconsolable.  The wife was particularly angry.  Her rage ballooned with every question I asked her during our regrettably mandatory interview.  She became so incensed that periodically during our discussion, she would pause to punch her dead husband’s driver’s license that lay on the kitchen table where the police had left it after retrieving it from his pocket.

“HOW could YOU do THIS to US?!” she hollered as she slammed her fist against his I.D. photo.

The hardest part was the teen-aged son, though. At one point he pulled me aside and asked if it was possible that someone else may have shot his father. I asked him why he would suspect such a thing and he told me that he saw small holes in the closed garage door when he found his dad.  Could those holes be bullet holes?  Is it possible that someone was firing a gun elsewhere and the bullets ripped through the garage door and killed his father?

I had to tell him that, no… those holes in the garage door were NOT stray bullet holes.  They were, in fact, made by his father’s skull fragments as his cranium was blown to smithereens by a self-inflicted, close-range, high-powered projectile.

Anyway… stuffing anyone?

thanksgiving.png

Another year I had a murder/suicide on Thanksgiving morning.  While the rest of the world was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, this dude was shooting his ex-girlfriend as she moved out of their shared home… then he shot himself. This whole scenario would have been bad enough as it was, however, when police arrived at the scene following a panicked neighbor’s call, they had no way of knowing if the shooter was still alive in the home.  Subsequently, their remedy was to fumigate the residence with tear-gas in an attempt to smoke the guy out.  They must have fired at least 6 canisters into the 2-bedroom home… all completely useless because everyone in the residence was dead except for the dog- who was found hiding under the bed.  And even though the cops opened all the windows for ventilation after they gained access to the house, it was still impossible to walk into that place without having your eyes water-up, your nose start leaking like a sieve and your throat lock up tighter than an angry fist.

Yes, for Thanksgiving dinner that year, I got a face-full of tear-gas.

Yet more than gruesome calls and overly-enthusiastic SWAT tactics, what we deal with on holidays are unresolved issues.  People are mired in thought about their family… and they’re desperately missing their departed, which prompts lots of calls to our office to discuss… things. I’m not sure, but I think it makes people feel closer to their loved ones when they make contact with the investigator and re-hash all the circumstances regarding their death.  People want to hear the story again, make sure we didn’t miss anything… or make sure they didn’t miss anything… or make sure there haven’t been any new developments.  I once had a woman call me up on Christmas Day to ask me if I was absolutely certain that her son’s death was a suicide and he wasn’t actually murdered by the “Mexicans” who had been moving into town lately.  She actually asked me that, hissing the word, “Mexicans” the way some old-world gypsy woman would say “Trolls” or “Vampires.”  And while, realistically, I couldn’t address her blatant racism, I was able to assure her that her son’s death had been a suicide by hanging and he hadn’t been strung up by an angry mob of any particular ethnicity.

All of these episodes taken into account, though, I can’t help but feel that we’re in for something different this year, namely because 2017 is the year our office met Beatrice.

Realistically, only one of us has actually “met” Beatrice.  She showed up at the scene of a fatal motor-vehicle accident that my co-worker, Henry, was fielding.  But more about that later…

Beatrice is an elderly woman who started calling the medical examiner’s office roundabout early spring.  No one is really sure how she got our number or what originally started her on her campaign… but every time there is a deceased male anywhere in the county, Beatrice calls to see if it’s her son.

We don’t know much about Beatrice, but we’ve managed to figure out a few things. We know that Beatrice must have a police scanner, or she is connected to some kind of web-site or app that allows her to listen to dispatch because she’s always on point about calling whenever a male dead body is found. Furthermore, we also figure Beatrice is at least partially cognizant of how odd her calls are, because a little research on the part of our secretary uncovered that she was warned off calling the police or the fire department anymore… making the medical examiner’s office her only hope. The calls commenced like a flash flood. At first there was nothing- just your normal, everyday benign business at the office one day.  And the next day our phone was squawking like an angry crow… announcing an onslaught of voicemails, because Beatrice had found us.

Furthermore, when Beatrice calls, she doesn’t just call once, she’ll keep calling until someone calls her back.  Now, doing the math on that concept really quick:  Our county is scrambling towards a population of 700,000 souls. Assume that roughly half of those souls are men. Then take into account the fact that women live longer than men and as a rule, men are statistically more at risk for heart disease, alcoholism, auto-accidents and so on and so on. This means that most of the calls our office gets are to report the deaths of men… Well, nowadays, the rest of the calls our office gets are from Beatrice, wondering if any of those dead men are her son.  And dealing with Beatrice’s calls and voicemails is turning into a full-time job

Now, let’s also remember that there’s only one medical examiner on duty at a time.  If that medical examiner is busy… you know… doing their JOB.  They may not call Beatrice back for a few hours.  Consequently, her repeat calls come faster and faster, always with a building sense of irritation and urgency.

The messages always start out the same:

“Hello, this is Beatrice Peterson. Please call me back at **********.”

Sounds pretty unassuming, right?  Nothing to be worried about here.

Then comes:

“Hello, this is Beatrice Peterson. I called earlier. I need a call back.”

“Hello, Beatrice Peterson call me back.”

“Hello, I don’t know why no one is calling me back. I need to know who died today.”

Sometimes, she’ll catch on that we’re not prioritizing her call and she’ll start giving alternate names and numbers, hoping that we won’t recognize her voice.

“Hello, this is Betty Johnson.  Please call me back at *completely different number than the one she left in the previous 4 messages.*

Now, I know what you’re thinking, Why not just talk to her and get it over with? Well, we would, but for the fact that sometimes when she calls, we’re kind of in the middle of something.  We may be explaining to a young mother how her baby died.  We may be discussing details of a homicide with a detective.  We may be in the fucking bathroom.  Sometimes we just can’t answer the goddamnned phone.  And when we finally DO call her back, Beatrice suddenly becomes evasive and vague… demanding information, but refusing to give any in return.  It goes like this:

“Hello, this is the Oswald County Medical Examiner, returning your call.”

“Hello, I want to know the identity of the person who was found dead on Main street this morning.”

“Well ma’am, the medical examiner’s office never releases the identity of any of our decedents.  That information comes from the Police Department’s Public Information Officer.  And they won’t release a name until the next of kin has been notified.”

“… But you know who it is?”

“Yes ma’am, I do.”

Well… I need to know.”

“And why is that?”

“Well, I just need to know.”

“I told you, no public information is released from this office.”

“Well, can you tell me if he’s white?”

“Ma’am…”

“What about his age? Can you tell me how old he is?”

“Ma’am, why do you need to know this?”

“I just want to know if it’s my son. I’m so worried about him.”

“Well, what’s your son’s name?”

And this is where it gets weird.  She refuses to give us her son’s name.  I’m a crack-shot when it comes to finding people.  I’ve found the biological parents of adopted children, I’ve found half-siblings who were completely unaware that they HAD any other family.  I’ve found estranged spouses who were living in foreign countries where no one spoke English.  I’m great at skip-tracing.  So at one point, it occurred to me that if I could find Beatrice’s son, maybe we could reunite them and then she’d stop calling us.

Problem is, Beatrice won’t give up the goods.

“I understand you’re wondering if the dead person is your son, can you tell me your son’s name?”

“Oh… uh, I just need to know the name of the dead person…”

“Yes, I know, because you’re worried it’s your son…”

“Yes.”

“Well what’s your son’s name?”

This is where she typically hangs up.  Or the story starts changing.  One time I told her I wanted to help her find her son, and she responded that she knew where he was, but just didn’t want to bother him.  Another time she told me he was homeless and could be anywhere.

Still another time, Henry was on the scene of a man’s death and as he describes it, some ragged-looking crazy woman showed up at the scene, wild-eyed, frantic and asking everyone who the dead person was.  At first Henry dismissed her until she got close enough for him to hear her voice.  Only then did he realize that Beatrice had taken her crusade to the streets.

“She looked exactly the way you’d imagine,” he told me later. “Her hair was all ratted out in every direction and I think she was wearing a night-gown.”

We needed to talk about Beatrice.

In our little office pow-wow, we decided something needed to be done… but no one was sure what COULD be done. She seemed to exhibit signs of dementia, yet she was aware enough to withhold information.  She wasn’t calling 911, just our office, so she wasn’t breaking any laws or rules… nor could we accuse her of abusing the emergency system. And while she’s undeniably inconvenient, she’s not threatening or even rude.  So we’ve more less realized there’s nothing we can do but wait for her to either turn her attention elsewhere or… well… die.

funny_granny

*not actually a photo of Beatrice

Thanksgiving is gone and Christmas is coming.  It’s the goddamnned holidays and I’m thinking about Beatrice. She’s on my mind because I have no doubt her usual call volume is going to increase exponentially with every passing day.  But she’s also on my mind because I fear I identify so closely with her right now.  The termites of loneliness are chewing on my foundation and I’m feeling a little… unstable.

I’ve been divorced for 2 years now, and 4 boyfriends have come and gone since then.  The latest guy was sweet, attentive, funny, intelligent… and a convicted felon… A small detail he conveniently forgot to reveal for about two months… right up until I started asking questions that didn’t have easy answers.  So I just ran his criminal history and 7 mug-shots later… that was the end of that (I’m a fucking investigator.  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?)

My father died a few years back.  My mom remarried.  My brother has his wife and kids. They’re all out-of-state and occupied with their suburban dream. I’ve got good friends, but everyone has their own thing going on… their own relationships to tend to.  I don’t have any kids- and I likely never will… but if I did, this is probably when I would start making calls to them, weird, frantic calls.  This is where I would start reaching out a hand to see if anyone’s there to take it. This is where I would start getting scared.

It’s weird how and where and when you find yourself alone…

empty

…Something like falling asleep on the subway and waking up to find everyone else got off 2 stops ago and it’s so quiet.  It’s so quiet that maybe you start calling out to see if anyone at all is with you.

Listen, do me a favor.  This holiday season, do something for me… as I sit in the office fielding phone calls from Beatrice and a host of other broken, remorseful people.

Bury the hatchet.

Mend the fences.

Bridge the gap.

Just call them- whoever is weighing on you- whoever it is you’ve been thinking about- whoever your pride has pushed away. Call them.

Do it for your local medical examiner.

Do it for Beatrice

Do it for 600 guys named Pablo… wandering around in some un-named town-square somewhere,

all searching for their fathers.