Letters From the Front: A Field Trip

What end-of-the-world week are we on anyway?

It doesn’t matter, I suppose. The runaway car is picking up speed and we’re rolling downhill… right into the inevitable crashing waves of an incoming tide. Maybe we could have prevented it, but prevention would have required the human race to be something other than what it is. I mean, let’s face it, we’re kind of a horror movie: all formulaic and predictable as we wander around in the dark with a beer in one hand and our tits hanging out… “Hello? Is someone there?”

“Billy? Is that you, Billy? This isn’t funny…”

We’re kind of designed for self-destruction. Like cells that are genetically programmed to detonate after a specific interval. It’s called apoptosis and I’m not terribly upset about it. It happened to the dinosaurs, it happened to the neanderthals and I’m starting to think it’s our turn. It’s fine. I mean, we’re just the latest ass-hole species to claw our way to the top of the heap before being toppled off when the universe has decided our number is up. I mean, no offense, but I think we were on thin ice when we crucified Jesus Christ. But we really forced the universe’s hand with institutionalized slavery and disco.

Ok… that’s IT… Homo-fucking-sapiens have got to GO

Cool. Whatever. To be honest, I’m fascinated to see how all of this plays out. I’ve got a front row ticket for the apocalypse and with every gruesome news report, I have to remind myself: who wants to watch a movie without getting to see the ending?

Ok, so maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic. But every time I deal with the fire department, I can’t shake the sense that the end has GOT to be extremely fucking nigh if these cock-clowns are really what we’re calling “heroes” these days.

Yeah, once again, I was baffled by the behaviors of the local firemen. This time around, it was me and one lone deputy at the scene of a motel suicide. Our dead guy had overdosed on his pain medication roughly 4 days before and he was, admittedly, getting a little… bloatey. Of course it was hard to say how bloatey because his walking-around weight was somewhere between 300 and 350lbs. He bought the farm in a second-floor room at a dingy little inn with no elevator. The deputy and I had called the local fire-crew for a lift assist and when they still hadn’t arrived 40 minutes later, the officer and I started getting a little… anxious.

“Jeez, I know their station is, literally, around the block,” the deputy said as we watched out the window for our aid’s arrival. “If it weren’t for those trees over there, we’d probably be able to see it. They were here earlier when the motel staff first called 911. It’s not like they don’t know the way.”

“Really? They were here?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he nodded. “They showed up in all of their protective equipment even though they never even went inside.”

“They didn’t?”

The deputy shook his head emphatically. “They all stood in the parking lot and made the ambulance crew go in and pronounce the guy. I mean, they put on all that shit just to get out of their truck and then get back in again.”

“Jesus,” I said. “that seems like kind of a waste, all things considered…”

As though in response to our musings, my pager went off at that moment, bidding me to contact the fire crew’s battalion chief.

I did my best to sound cordial when I called him: “Hi, this is the medical examiner, I’m returning a page?”

“Hello, this is battalion chief Dawson, I just wanted to talk to you abut this lift assist…”

“Yeah, we’ve been waiting for over half an hour. Is something wrong?”

“Well…” he hesitated slightly before regaining his BATTALION CHIEF voice and charging forward with the bad news. “I was wondering if you have any other options for getting him out of there.”

I glanced at the massive, seeping, inert from on the hotel bed… and then at the deputy who was definitely not going to be winning any Mr. Universe competitions. “What do you mean?”

“Well, from what I understand… this body is a decomp.”

“Yeah,” I was confused. “So?”

“Well, I just don’t want to subject my crew to that…”

“Subject your crew to what?”

“I don’t want my crew to have to deal with that…”

“Hey,” I called over to the deputy. “Tell dispatch we’re canceling fire. They’re not going to help us.” The officer looked askance at me, but I just shook my head. He was calling for more deputies as I told the BATTALION CHIEF I would call him back to discuss this later. Within 90 seconds, five more deputies had rolled into the motel parking lot and they were uncomplainingly gloving-up to boldly go where no (fire)man has gone before. The irony being that the fire-crew actually sheepishly rolled up in their truck just as my squad of ultimate bad-asses was heaving the dead body into my truck. The officers glared their withering contempt at the fireman as they got back into their cruisers to return to their posts. Meanwhile, I approcahed this fire truck to ask the fire crew what, exactly, was the deal with them bitching out on helping lift a dead body.

Of course, as I approached, I couldn’t help but notice the fire crew was, again, completely done up in their PPE when they hadn’t even gotten out of their truck. Gloves, surgical gowns, masks, eye-protection… all of which would now get thrown out without ever having been actually used. I told them the sheriff’s office had already dealt with the issue and I would direct discussion at their battalion chief… who I called back a few minutes later.

He, again, asserted that he “didn’t want to expose his crew to THAT call.” Inspiring even more confusion in me. In ten years, I’d never had a fire crew just flat-out refuse to do… you know… their JOB.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the BC. “I don’t understand… Is this a coronavirus issue? Like, is this an infectious concern?”

“No…” he stuttered. “It was a decomp…”

“Ok, well… is the problem contamination? Like they’re concerned about getting decomp on their turn-out gear or something?”

“No, we have protective gear for that.”

“Ok,” I said, giving up. “Would you explain it to me then? Because I think I’m missing something here.”

“Well. I don’t want to subject my crew to a decomp, it would be really hard for them…”

“Wait, what?”

“I don’t want to subject my crew…”

“Yeah, I got that part.” I groped for the inconceivable reality of what he was saying. “Are you telling me that it would be too emotionally and psychologically damaging for your crew to help move a decomposing body?”

“Yes.”

I made him repeat it a couple more times because I was so incredulous that I wasn’t sure I was hearing him right. But the message was clear. Decomposing bodies are too unsettling for the fire department’s delicate sensibilities. Therefore the nation’s brave, self-sacrificing champions would not be responding to any calls that sounded too icky. I was tempted to ask if the fire department was going to refuse to respond to other potentially upsetting calls… You know, like car accidents or house-fires. But I didn’t want to hurt the BATTALION CHIEF’S tender feelings. I can only hope that sitting around the firehouse, playing x-box and accepting plates of cookies from bored housewives doesn’t prove to be too mentally strenuous for them.

I also didn’t bother to point out that his crew had, in the midst of a national shortage, burned through two rounds of personal protective equipment without ever even entering the motel where out decedent was found… Namely because I didn’t want to be blamed in case this little fact proved to be too much and he had a nervous breakdown.

Anyway…we, the essential workers of public health, carry on. I actually had to do my first COVID swab on a dead guy the other day. He had been deceased for about a week… and it wasn’t until day six post-mortem that his family decided to start making noises about the coronavirus. I had been at the scene with them a week earlier and no one had said anything about him being ill. All they wanted to talk about was his CHF, his heart disease, his schizophrenia and his methamphetamine use. But now, all of a sudden, the family claimed he had been coughing like a dying car and running a fever of 101.

Why no one mentioned any of these symptoms on the day he died was a mystery. But the story was compelling enough to convince the pathologist. So, I was bid go to the funeral home to collect all the appropriate bodily fluids… Which left me with the painful realization that I had absolutely no idea how to perform this task. Oh sure, emails had come about policies and procedures regarding COVID swabs. And those emails had been followed by more emails about new policies and procedures… which were swiftly replaced by updated policies and procedures. And rather than spend hours trying to chase down the most accurate email, I asked Henry if he knew how to take a COVID swab. he told me he’d given up fifteen emails ago.

The pathologist was a little more help, but only a little.

“Just put the swab in their nose and drive it straight back, not up. Then twist as you pull it out. Put them in the plastic container and send them to the lab. It’s super easy.”

“Okay…” I mumbled as he hung up, realizing no one had said anything about whether or not the swabs had to be refrigerated either before or after I’d jammed them in this guy’s nose. There also hadn’t been any discussion about the effectiveness of the test on a body that’s been dead for a week. but I figured these issues were beyond my pay-grade. I had been told to do the swabs and send them in, so that’s what I was going to do.

When I arrived at the funeral home, I was whisked out of the view of an active funeral and escorted to the cooler where my decedent was presented to me looking much like he had on the day he was found collapsed on his living room floor. I was relieved to see the funeral home had done a bang-up job of refrigerating him because I was honestly concerned that, at a week post-mortem, when I stuck the swabs in his nose they might come out the back of his head.

“So… you just stick them in his nose?” The funeral home employee looked doubtful. “How do you know how far to go?”

“I have no idea,” I admitted. “Until it stops?”

She wrinkled her nose and I pulled the testing swabs out of the little bio-hazard bag I’d been given. Both were a good ten inches long and made out of plastic. One was as thick as a q-tip while the other was a thin, flexible, graceful wand about half as wide as a toothpick. The funeral home girl was watching intently so I shrugged and went for the bigger one first. Driving the swab directly back, I pushed the swab into the decedent’s nose and kept going until I must have hit his spine… because I’m convinced I buried at least 8 inches of that thing in the guy’s sinuses. Twisting as I withdrew, the swab emerged with a wet sluuuuuurp.

EEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWW

Involuntarily, both the funeral director and I shuddered and squealed with disgust as we watched a drop of ubiquitous fluid slip off the end of the swab and plop on the dead guy’s cheek. I shoved the swab into the test-tube, broke off the end and quizzically regarded the thinner, gracile swab. “I wonder what I’m supposed to do with this one.” I said aloud. The funeral director shrugged and for lack of anything better to do, I shoved the second swab in the guy’s other nostril and called the whole venture a success… even though I’m pretty sure the second swab emerged with a couple of maggot eggs on it that had been deposited by opportunistic flies I’d noted in his apartment on the date of his death.

After leaving the funeral home, I proceeded to have one of the craziest shifts in recent memory. It would appear a nasty strain of Fentanyl-laced pills has hit the illegal market, likely masquerading as Xanax or Oxycodone. I ended up going to five suspected overdoses after my swabbing adventure. I was so busy, the COVID test sat on the center console of our truck for approximately 8 hours before I managed to get home and toss the swabs in the refrigerator. I had no idea if they needed to be refrigerated but I figured it couldn’t hurt. I hid them behind the ranch dressing and siracha in the hopes that my boyfriend wouldn’t see them and kick me out of the house.

not for human consumption

The following morning, I wearily surrendered the swabs to a public health nurse. She informed me, as she packed the swabs in a cooler for transport to the testing lab, that they are supposed to be refrigerated as quickly as possible after samples are collected. I confessed that the swabs had sat in the truck, forlorn and forgotten, for over half the day before I was anywhere near a refrigerator. She shrugged. “I’m sure it’s fine…” she said. Then she told me that only the thin wand-like swab was meant for the nose. The thicker, monster swab was meant for oral testing… but it was probably okay since the guy was dead and didn’t feel it. Furthermore, as we were filling out paperwork, she mentioned that the COVID tests are not really recommended on bodies that had been dead for more than 3 days.

“Well, shit,” I said. “This guy had been dead for a goddamned week before his family even told us he had symptoms…”

She stared at me for a long moment, then shrugged and briskly snapped the cooler shut. “Well,” she sighed. “We do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

24 hours later, the dead guy’s test came back negative… which meant almost nothing at all, all things considered. And I’m more or less horrified that we burned a test on such an utterly pointless exercise.

We’re pretty much maybe, sort of thinking he didn’t have COVID?”

People ask me stuff, they ask about working on the “front lines” and being “an essential employee.” People are asking me about testing- how the infections is being tracked, how cases are being counted and so on… all I can do is look at them and then start humming circus music… because that’s what this is, a goddamned circus. When it isn’t a horror movie, this is a comedy of errors, careening toward oblivion at 100 miles per hour- which, interestingly, is the average speed of a human sneeze.

In the immortal words of Mel Brooks comedic masterpiece, Spaceballs:

“Oh shit… there goes the planet.”

But in case you didn’t notice… I DID, in fact, say something about a boyfriend back there. Which may be why I’m feeling kind of optimistic about the end of the world. Stay tuned. That story is a good one… with no fire-fighters at all.

I promise.

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