Regarding Henry

  • So… Henry. You remember Henry.
I talk about Henry a lot. It’s hard to avoid. He’s kind of like my Dad in this profession, but not like the Dad who actually fathered me. That distinction belongs to Tina- my handler from my internship when I was first learning the ropes as a medicolegal death investigator. Henry’s like the dad that decided to adopt a surly foster kid whose family dropped her off at a bus-stop and never came back.
they’ll be back for me any second now…
Henry took me under his wing and helped me go from being an intern to being a real deputy medical examiner. Not that he had much choice in the matter. I more or less imprinted on my first day and now I call him at least once per shift. Typically I’m frantic for help because some situation has arisen that’s so far outside of my realm of experience that the only way I can think of to deal with it is to set the office on fire and leave town. Other times I call him simply because I’m lonely and I’m looking for someone to commiserate over the idiocy of funeral home employees or the unbridled, moronic bravado of fire-fighters… or I need someone to empathize with the incredibly fucked-up death scene I just handled. And Henry can always empathize… he’s seen it all.
just another day at the office
Seriously, the other day I was binge watching “Criminal Minds” on Netflix when I realized that the premise of one episode was actually one of Henry’s calls from a few years ago. He told me about it. Some woman had shown up at the hospital ER with a newly delivered infant. She claimed she had just given birth at home and needed assistance. The pediatric department took the baby while the ER staff assessed the mother. A few minutes later, the ER staff called the police because they quickly ascertained that the woman had not just given birth to anything except maybe her own delusion. Yet, she was in possession of a fresh-out-of-the-oven infant and no one knew where she got it.
Your physical exam has determined… you are NOT the mother
It turns out, the woman had been crazy with grief over the loss of her own child. I’m not sure what happened- whether this woman’s biological kid had died or if she lost it fair-and-square to child protective services. Regardless, she felt entitled to another one. She contrived a plan in which she posted an ad, claiming to be selling newborn baby clothing on Craigslist. Then she waited for some thrifty mom-to-be to take the bait. When one such woman, who was days away from delivering, came to the crazy woman’s home to check out the baby clothes, the crazy woman killed her. I don’t recall the specifics, but the crazy woman managed to extricate the baby from the deceased mother intact. Then this nut-job took the newborn to the hospital, convinced she could pass the child off as her own. Pandemonium ensued… and now I never buy anything off of Craigslist. That’s not the point. The point is Henry has seen it all, so much so that primetime procedural dramas use his stories as plot-lines.
Yes, these are my children… they look like their father… I assume…
That said, even Henry get’s stymied sometimes. Even Henry’s occasioanlly speechless. Speaking of babies The other day, Henry and I were having coffee during shift change. It’s our little ritual, we meet up at the office and then meander off to the closest Starbucks. We never sit outside, rather we get our drinks and then go hover at the edge of the parking lot so Henry can smoke and we can unabashedly talk about work without anyone overhearing. It’s not uncommon for Henry to be bit a low-energy at these times. When we do shift change, he’s been on shift for 48 hours and any number of ludicrous situations may have come his way. But this one day, he was even more incredulous than usual when I asked him how his shift had gone. “Well,” he said, sucking on a Winston cigarette and staring at the slow march of cars grinding through the Starbucks drive-up window. “You know my last shift, I had that woman with the psych-history? The one who killed herself with pills?” “Yeah,” I said, sipping my coffee. “She was pregnant, right? She had all those suicide attempts? Like she tried to jump off a building… then she tried to cut her wrists…” “Yeah, that’s the one.” Henry sighed. “I got a call from her husband. He wanted to know if we had the baby…” “He wanted to know… wait… what?” Henry nodded. “Yeah, he called me up and was all, ‘I’ve heard that, you know… when a pregnant woman dies, sometimes you can still save the baby… so… Do you have the baby?'” I stared at Henry in disbelief. “He wanted to know if the baby was alive and if we had it?” Henry nodded again. “But she was dead for like, a day before she was found…” I said, working through the logistics in my head. Henry nodded again. “-And she died… last week.” Henry was still nodding. “So he wanted to know if the medical examiner’s office has had his baby for the last week and just forgot to call him?” Still nodding. “What? Did he think we put it in the safe or something?” Henry shrugged. “Definitely the first time I’ve ever had to have the, no-we-don’t-have-your-baby conversation. I mean, I’d thought I’d heard it all…”
Your Dad posted bail… you can go…
…which is saying something about the nature of our work and the fact that, even after 25 years on the job, even Henry never really knows what a shift is going to throw at him. Like teeth. During another morning coffee break, Henry told me about a call that he’d had on his shift in which a woman was found deceased in her room by her roommates. She was in her late 50’s and had a wide array of medical problems. Her death appeared to be natural as far as Henry could tell. Everything seemed fine until he was helping the funeral home lift the decedent off the floor and on to their stretcher. It was at that moment that Henry noticed that there were small objects on the floor that looked like… wait, are those? Nah… couldn’t be… but… hang on, yeah. Yeah, I think they are. Fuck, me those definitely are… “Teeth,” Henry said to me. “Her teeth were on the floor of her bedroom.” “You mean, like her dentures?” I asked. “No, I mean like her individual teeth. Like, with the roots and everything.” Henry had been confused. He had noted that the decedent was missing her front teeth during his exam of the body. But nothing suggested that she had been assaulted or fallen or suffered any kind of trauma that would knock her teeth out. “She didn’t have a mark on her,” Henry told me. “No blood, no bruising or scratches… nothing” “Weird,” I commented. Henry nodded and then explained how he approached the roommate to ask him about the decedent’s dentition. “Oh, yeah…” the roommate had said. “She had all kinds of problems with her teeth! They kept falling out so she would stick ’em back in with superglue, but they never stayed for very long. Usually just a day or two. Then they’d fall out and she’d stick ’em in again. I told her to go see a dentist but she wouldn’t…” “Wait, she’d stick her teeth back in with superglue?” I asked, coughing up a liberal swallow of coffee
“Apparently,” said Henry. “Wow.” “Yup.” But probably my favorite of Henry’s stories is… well… Like me, Henry is a transplant. Before coming to our distinguished jurisdiction, Henry worked in a state where there was what can only be described as a wide array of lifestyles. And one night, Henry got called to a scene where the decedent and his family engaged in such a lifestyle. Henry had been called to a mountainous region to investigate an apparent natural death of a middle-aged man. It was evening and as Henry drove further and further into the forest, the light faded and Henry realized that the area where he was headed was completely foreign to him. He had never been to this little corner of his county before and was somewhat surprised when he passed through the gates of a small community that called itself by some quaint, unassuming name, “Shady Acres” or “Sunnybrook” or something like that. The light was fading as Henry wound his way into the mountainous neighborhood, he noted that the homes were pretty widely spaced. Each plot of land boasted a few acres and it wasn’t uncommon for the houses to be a good mile apart or so. Furthermore, as Henry passed each home, he noted that the residents were extremely friendly. They would come out on to their porches as he motored by, or they would smile and wave from their windows. Henry also couldn’t help but notice that every last one of them was buck-naked. Henry’s decedent was a nudist… as was every one of the decedent’s neighbors and family members.
Upon finding the address in question, Henry entered the home to find himself surrounded by a bunch of sobbing naked people, and a couple of clothed police officers who were barely holding it together. They introduced Henry to the widow (yup, not a stitch of clothing) and she directed Henry to the decedent who was laying on the living room floor. When Henry told the family that he needed to perform an external exam on the decedent, everyone except for the widow left the room. She staunchly refused to leave her husband’s side. Normally Henry would have absolutely no problem insisting that the wife remove herself from the death scene. But seeing as how she was both crazy with grief AND naked, Henry didn’t feel comfortable looking at her long enough to have that conversation… not that his discomfort in any way mattered to her. As Henry was on his knees by the body (who was positioned in a corner of the room) the wife continued to animatedly describe the evening’s events leading up to her husband’s collapse. She was gesticulating wildly and inching closer and closer to Henry. Her pendulous breasts were swinging in his face as he knelt on the floor next to the decedent, and she seemed to be completely ignorant of the fact that she was coming dangerously close to actually striking Henry across the face with her lady-bits. Henry continued backing further and further away until he was, quite literally, cornered by this naked woman who bore down on him like an angry, hairless bear. Behind the woman, Henry could see the two deputies barely containing their laughter as they watched him bob-and-weave in an attempt to avoid actual physical contact with the naked woman. To hear Henry tell it, they never let him forget the incident… not that he could have. I’m convinced it’s why he left that god-forsaken county for someplace a little more civilized… and clothed.
it’s beginning to look a lot like… ummm…
Henry’s 62 now, almost 63. Our other co-worker, Scott, mentioned Henry’s imminent retirement recently, and I snorted at the idea. Henry’s never going to retire. He’s going to die doing this job… and guess who’s going to find him? I try not to think about it, but Henry recently caught a gnarly virus and for the first time in my memory, he actually took some of his accumulated sick days (I think he’s easily got a few hundred years saved up. Even God allegedly rested on the Sabbath, but not Henry. While God was kicking his feet back, Henry was mopping up the whole Cain and Able debacle.). When two days had gone by and no one had heard from him, my supervisor and I exchanged a rather… nervous… phone call. “Hey, have you talked to Henry in the last couple of days?” “No, have you?” “No.” We didn’t say it but I know we were both thinking it. Henry is solidly in his 60’s– an era of life that I frequently refer to as “heart-attack-country.” Henry smokes a pack a day and has three divorces under his belt. In the last few months, we’ve noticed that Henry has stopped doing his filing. He takes weeks to turn in his case files and gets strangely defensive when anyone mentions these things to him. There’s a stack of un-read police reports in a filing box in the corner of our office. He stubbornly refuses to pass on to anyone how to do the supply ordering and he hasn’t gotten his hair cut in who knows how long. Something’s going on but no one wants to discuss it. “I’ll call him right now,” I told my supervisor that morning. When Henry answered the phone, he sounded awful… I mean, like plague-victim bad. I apparently woke him up and he growled some incoherent epithet at me and I fell all over myself apologizing. I called my supervisor back and told her that Henry was still alive… and that was enough for the moment. But still, we all know what’s coming. It’s our job to know. We all know that some morning, Henry won’t show up for shift change, and one of us (probably me) is going to have to go over to his apartment and do the deed- have the cops break in and confirm what we already know. That Hank has gone the way of our clients. He probably won’t get an autopsy because his cause of death won’t be a mystery. Furthermore, he’ll go to our favorite funeral home… the one with all the cookies. I’m ready for it the same way I was ready for my father’s death. That’s the hidden benefit of this job, it’s brutally hard and incredibly traumatic, but it’s taught me to be prepared for anyone to abruptly disappear from my life. It’s taught me that you never know what’s going to happen, but you can guess and guess with a pretty impressive degree of accuracy. So, I tell Henry that he’s wonderful, that he’s smart, that he’s taught me everything that I know and he ALWAYS has the best stories. And when it happens it will be a surprise but not a shock. I’ll be heartbroken but not devastated. I’ll do my best to remember his stories and invest in someone the way he invested in me. I’ll miss him Death, it’s what we do… all of us… sooner or later.

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.


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-


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.”


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.

You Know You’re a Medical Examiner When…

In continuation of the last installment of Dead Men’s Donuts-



So, after I removed the dead mini-coop driver from the scene of the MVA, I had to take him to a local funeral home where I could do a good, thorough exam before contacting the forensic pathologist to discuss an autopsy. Seeing as how the scene was overrun with cameras and reporters, I wasn’t about to spread our decedent out on the side of the road for God and everybody to see. Nor could I just take him into the office since our doctors REALLY don’t like having bodies show up un-announced.


Unfortunately, a change of venue was not going to make this poor guy’s death any less… gruesome. A human body is pretty much just a big sack of fluids that are kept in place and prevented from free-flowing all over the floor by a fairly complex and delicately balanced system of tubes, pumps and valves. When that system stops functioning properly… or stops functioning at all… it’s just puddles everywhere. The fact that this guy had a wide array of holes in his fluid sack only made matters worse. Every time I had to maneuver his body around to document yet another fracture or laceration… the movement flicked blood here and there until the floor around me looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.  Although working on an ambulance made me as nimble as Neo from “The Matrix” when it came to dodging airborne body parts and fluids (blood, vomit, amniotic fluid… teeth… you name it) I was unable to completely avoid all of the spatter. (Imagine hugging a basset hound without getting drool on you… It just can’t be done.) While I left the exam with a complete index of all our dead guy’s injuries, I also left sporting a liberal sprinkle of his blood on my right thigh.


Blood on your clothes is an unavoidable part of being a medical examiner. However, if/when you DO get blood on you, it’s considered very bad form to just LEAVE it there.


As I left the funeral home I stared down at the spray of blood and frowned. I knew I really should go home and change clothes, but on the other hand, the accident involving the owner of that blood had already eaten up a good portion of my day and I had a million things to do… including run down to my ophthalmologist’s office for a brief exam to make sure my eyes were healing properly after my lasik procedure. I was sorely overdue for my three month follow-up and they said that, today, if I could make it into the office before 2 p.m. they would just squeeze me in for a quick look. I glanced at my phone and noted it was 1:30. I had a half hour before my window closed and I would have to put off the appointment until God-knows-when. Coordinating the office’s schedule with my own had been a huge problem and they didn’t really have any appointments available on my days off until next month. I glanced down at my pant-leg again. The blood wasn’t too obvious. If you squinted, it almost looked like soy sauce… That was it! If anyone asked, I would just tell them I had Chinese for lunch.


Twenty minutes later, I was kicked back in an exam chair, waiting for the doctor to come in and take a gander at my dead-lights. My relief was palpable. I was getting things done. I was the picture of productivity and time-management… I was … wearing someone’s blood on my pants… but nobody else needed to know that.


“Hello hello, Grace,” the doctor chirped as she walked in. “I’m so glad you could make it in today! You’re overdue!” We exchanged the typical pleasantries as the doctor seated herself and wheeled up to me to stare into my eyes. “So your eyes are healing beautifully,” she gushed as she swung a variety of machines and devices in front of my face. I was staring through a series of lenses and reading letters when it happened.


“Okay!” The doctor was saying as I read letters off a screen. “It looks as though your left eye is a … little..bit… um…” Her voice trailed off. I glanced away from the big metal machine the doctor had positioned in front of my face, to find that she was staring at the blood flecks on my thigh.


Now, I could have played it off like it was soy sauce on my pants like I had planned. I’m not ashamed to admit that I can lie like road-kill when I have to (To this day, my parents still have no idea what really happened to the living-room carpet when I was 13).  But in this case I didn’t see the point. Doctors know blood… even if they haven’t seen it for decades, a doctor will always know a blood stain when they see one. Hell, sometimes when I’m walking around downtown with Husband, I’ll point out all the bloodstains on the sidewalk, just to horrify him.


The doctor coughed and regained her train of thought while I, without stopping to consider, blurted out the first, idiot thought that streaked through my mind:


“Oh… ha! Don’t worry none of that is my blood!”


I added the laugh in the hopes of lightening the whole blood-thing a little bit, but in retrospect, I suppose it probably sounded more maniacal than nonchalant.


You know you’re a medical examiner when you think people will be reassured when you tell them that the blood all over your clothes isn’t actually yours.



You Know You’re a Medical Examiner….

I know you’ve seen them. The damn things are everywhere. Those ridiculous little lists that state, “You know you’re a _____________ when ___________.” And there you have some inane little anecdote about a particular demographic. For example, “You know you’re a Nurse when you wash your hands before you go to the bathroom.” or “You know you’re a redneck when your family tree is a wreath” (I didn’t make those up- if I knew who did, I would give them credit, so please don’t sue me.)

Well, I recently had a shift during which I realized that I had really arrived professionally, not that “arriving” as a medical examiner is a profoundly glamorous or impressive achievement. Rather, it’s a realization that you’ve truly morphed into a strange, animal… one that flails miserably at what’s considered “normal interaction”. You’ve become a creature that offends and repulses other members of its species with deplorable manners and horrific subject matter, one that scurries about in the shadows like a scarab; always at work and always hiding.

What have I become?

I am a Medical Examiner, through and through… and I…



I do strange things… I say strange things… My brain is decorated with skulls and pin-wheels. There’s a funeral march played by kazoos in my head wherever I go.

So here it is.

“You know you’re a medical examiner when … : A journey to self actualization in three acts and one shift.”



I hadn’t managed to get any coffee on my way to the office, but I was okay. I had been planning on getting a nice little designer espresso beverage at the coffee-stand just outside our building. And after getting this longed-for coffee, I had intended to spend the morning taking care of some paperwork and filing; two tasks that I look forward to the same way I look forward to removing unsightly body hair… in that I find both of these activities inane, redundant and ultimately pointless, but I do both for the sake of appearances. However, on that fateful, career-defining day, Henry stumbled in to our cubicle, handed me the county pager and informed me that there was a fatal MVA holding for me in the south end of the county.

I wasn’t exactly pleased with him for dumping that blood-spattered fiasco in my lap, but I couldn’t really blame him. Taking this case would have meant at least 3 hours of unwanted over-time tacked on to a 48-hour shift that, judging by his blood-shot eyes and rumpled clothes, hadn’t been an easy one. And after all, here I was, fresh-faced and clear-eyed… or at least I would have been if I’d had some fucking coffee.

I trudged out to the death scene tragically under-caffeinated and when I got there, I was greeted by a dozen fire-fighters, 6 county deputies, 4 MVA investigation and re-creation specialists, 2 detectives, our public information officer, a fire-department chaplain and no less than 4 news vans, filled with pushy reporters who apparently had nothing better to do. (I swear to God, reporters are like sharks, they can smell blood on the pavement 50 miles away.)

Oh, and there was a dead guy, too.

The MVA at hand was a head-on collision between a panel truck and a mini-coop. The mini-coop driver had swerved into the oncoming lane and the “specialists” estimated that both vehicles were going approximately 60 miles per hour when they hit. What this essentially meant was that the panel-truck driver got to take a super expensive helicopter ride that he would never remember to the closest hospital, while the mini-coop driver… well he wasn’t going anywhere without the help of some heavy machinery and the fire department- the fire department that was cheerfully firing up the jaws of life like they were tapping a beer keg as I approached.

“Hey Chaplain Bob, what’s going on?” I wrapped my arm around the shoulder of the wizened, old bear of a man as he stood by, watching the mini-coop get shucked open like an oyster.

That’s the way things work around here. If you want the low-down on any emergency situation in the county, you talk to the man-of-God first. Officially, I have no idea what our county chaplains’ job description actually is. But I fancy that their employee manual probably consists of one sentence:

“Hang out and handle shit.”

… Because that’s exactly what Chaplain Bob does- like a boss.

“Hey girl!” Chaplain Bob guffawed as he returned my hug. “How the hell are ya?”

“I’m utterly without coffee. What have we got?”

Chaplain Bob gave me the complete scenario. He’s good at that. While cops are solely focused on the legal aspects of a situation and firemen are focused on the medical/safety side of things, Chaplain Bob is keenly aware of the guts of a situation. He keeps the end-game in sight and watches as every plate spins. He’s also, like me, concerned with the human interest facet of a death. However, unlike me, he’s actually deeply concerned about people’s state of mind, whereas I just don’t want to get sued.

Our dead guy was a solo driver. He was on his way home from work. He lived alone and family was in town, but had not been located or notified yet. Bob explained all of this as we observed chunks of mini-coop being bitten off the wreckage by “the jaws” until, finally, the gooey center of the whole tragic jelly donut was revealed… Our dead guy.

I’ve seen worse, but still, this dude wasn’t going to have an open casket.

“So wait,” I turned back to Chaplain Bob after taking a quick preliminary look at our dead guy before he was fully extricated. “If this guy’s by himself and the family hasn’t been found yet, what are YOU doing here? I mean, I’M always glad to see you, but technically, there isn’t anyone here for you to… uh… chaplain-ate”

He gestured at the firemen, who were now peeling back the lid of the mini-coop like a sardine can- not because they needed to, of course, but because they could. “I’m here for the guys,” Chaplain Bob told me in a warm, doting tone. “Extrications can be hard for them… emotionally… psychologically…”

I glanced at the fire-fighters, who all wore expressions of jubilant glee, like grade-schoolers who had just been dismissed for the summer.

“Uh… yeah. MAN… they’re really messed up about it.”

Chaplain Bob either didn’t catch my sarcasm or chose to ignore it, Probably the latter. And the two of us watched as the mini-coop continued to disintegrate at the hands of our nation’s heroes. Of course, as we waited for the decedent to be fully unraveled from the car, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one was ever even slightly concerned with MY emotional and psychological well-being. I supposed giving a damn didn’t make our department budget again this year.

Of course, I was so busy watching the fire-fighters’ psyches splinter beneath the strain of doing their goddamned JOB, that I didn’t notice the news crews were also doing their job. Behind my back, the hi-def vultures had circled inward and wheedled their way past the yellow hazard tape and into the actual debris field. I turned to find a cameraman and reporter perched no less than 50 yards from the annihilated vehicles, sucking up all the video footage and photos they could absorb.

“Oh, HELL NO!” I hollered as I stomped over to the closest police officer and demanded to know who the hell had let the media snuggle into our death scene like a house-cat in a sun-beam.

“What the fuck are they DOING there? They’re getting shots of the car, the dead guy, the license plate… EVERYTHING!”

The officer gaped at me in confused terror and stuttered out that he had allowed the media to converge upon us and commence coverage of the whole spectacle… But only AFTER he had secured their solemn promise not to broadcast any footage of the mini-coop or its driver until AFTER the decedent’s family had been notified.

As though on cue, my pager began buzzing at my hip. I pulled it off my belt, scrolled through the message, swore loudly and then turned to the cop and, out loud, read the message which I had just received from my home office:

“(name omitted) called at 09:04 stating that he just saw his brother’s car on the news, reporting a fatal accident. Please call him back at 555-URSOFUCKED”

The cop worked his mouth like a dying fish. Chaplain Bob gave him the “I’m-so-disappointed-in-you” look. Whereas my disapproval wasn’t quite so subtle:

“Motherfucker, I am going to PUNCH you on the fucking THROAT!”

In perhaps his first display of good judgment that day, the cop did not argue or attempt to defend himself. He hung his head in shame and looked as though he kind of wished I would punch him in the throat rather than leave him to face a gauntlet of jeering co-workers when this gaffe made its way around the station.

You know you’re a medical examiner when you can threaten a cop with bodily harm and he just cowers and more or less agrees that, yes, he probably is due for a good, solid ass-whuppin’.


-Stay tuned for act II and III

The Greatest Show on Earth?

So an actor died this past week… You probably heard.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit and I’ve decided I want to talk about it… But I’m not going to mention his name because… well… because I don’t want to. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked his movies, and from what I have heard, he actually seemed to be an okay guy as far as actors go. He didn’t get married and divorced multiple times, he didn’t inflict a chaos-infused personal life on the general public. The guy made movies, acted in plays and he was really, really good at it. That said, I didn’t KNOW him. I never met him, he wasn’t my hero and I can’t say I knew anything about him at all. So I don’t want to talk about HIM so much as I want to talk about us… as a society… as a people… as a species, and how we react to the deaths of people we don’t really know.

Just to get it out of the way… We suck. And this actor’s death once again brings that sad fact into painfully sharp focus.

The truth, dressed in it’s most modest clothing and standing quietly in the middle of the information freeway, is this:

If someone’s life was none of our business… their death is certainly none of our business.

There are a few exceptions, but not many. Perhaps I should say: “-their death is none of our business unless it’s a matter of public health, or their death in some way affects our civil rights.” Otherwise, just shut up about it okay? SHUT UP!

I’m not certain why we can’t seem to grasp the whole concept of privacy in death. But I have a few theories. We really love to be informed. I agree with most folks that it’s a good idea to be informed- violence, superstition, corruption and tyranny flourish in societies where the general populace is intentionally kept in ignorance. So, to a degree, information is something of an inoculation against such evils.

The problem is, we’ve taken this idea to the extreme and created an intellectual climate in which we believe we are self-righteously entitled to absolutely anything we want to know. If a president has a dog, we want to know it’s name. If an actress has a baby, we want to know if she’s going to breast feed. If a celebrity has sex, we want to see the video… hooo boy do we EVER want to see THAT video.

If someone dies, we want to know why… and we want to see the body… naked, if at all possible. We want to jam our noses into their mortal wounds and take a good long whiff of their viscera. Then we want to finger the embalming holes in their skin, trace the Y-incision from the autopsy with our tongues and then tweet about our self-indulgent devastation. We’re not actually going to GAIN anything from it… we didn’t necessarily KNOW this person… but we still want to see… and judge… and comment.

I’d like to blame the media, but I can’t really say it’s all their fault. One could argue that the whole media monster evolved to fill a need that we already had… the need to know. But the media, in it’s most common incarnation these days, isn’t about feeding a need nearly so much as it drives to create one. And we help them by consuming the quivering slop that they dish out and call “journalism”.

I don’t know where the phrase came from: “The public has a right to know…” or whatever the fuck their utterly-bull-shit-self-justifying line-of-drivel is these days. But the media convinces us that we want to know something. They convince us that we have every RIGHT to know something- and they are working… nay, they are FIGHTING for our right to know… they are our advocates in the war against ignorance! Hell, they’re our champions!

Except they’re not, especially not when everyone wants to know about YOU.

I’m getting off track.

The afternoon that this actor was found dead, I went to an exercise class. During warm-up, the instructor mentioned that the actor had passed. Instantly everyone was abuzz with comments. When did he die? Where did he die? What did he die of? And, naturally, somebody decided to go ahead and spray this shit all over the room:

“They say he was found with a needle in his arm!”

I grit my teeth and spoke up. Because whenever anyone starts talking about the mechanics of death, I tend to feel like something of an authority.

“They can’t possibly know that with any certainty,” I snapped. “The media makes up lies all the time and then publish it in the hopes that they’re right. I’ve seen it happen.”

Naturally, the people who didn’t shoot me a “what-the-fuck” look simply sighed with exasperation and continued on with their speculations about what they had now decided was the actor’s lurching monster of a heroin addiction. I was just that weird girl in the back of the room… the one who touches dead people… like… on purpose.

If they would have bothered listening, I would have told them the story of a happily married couple in Maine who had their deaths crucified, spread-eagle on the internet by that oozing legion of shit-smearing monkeys known as the media.

I had been called to the tidy little suburb by local police who had been contacted by the local mailman after he found a note in the mailbox belonging to this couple. (Lets call them Mr. and Mrs. Jones for the sake of clarity.)

The note was from Mr. Jones and, admittedly, it initially seemed to indicate the worst had occurred. In this note, he basically stated that both he and his wife were now deceased in their house and would someone please call the police.

This note seemed consistent with the behavior of a man who had first killed his wife, and then himself. I have no problem admitting that. Initially, we treated the situation as a murder-suicide. Of course, we didn’t call the fucking reporters in and tell them so… no way. But naturally, when the police cars started showing up, some local dim-wit of a housewife decided to ring up the local newspaper and the next thing you know, there was a swarm of buzzing insects… all with questions and cameras and the utterly ludicrous claim that the “public had a right to know.”

Now, no one who was actually a part of the investigation even bothered to make eye-contact with these ass-holes. But the neighbors apparently weren’t the type to learn from example- strange, since all of their houses looked equally boring and every single one of them was wearing the same goddamned yoga pants and Uggs- you’d think that blind imitation was the language of the realm.

Anyway, as soon as the news vans rolled in every single local came prancing out of their homes, full to bursting with comments and sound-bytes for the reporters, because after all…. why stay at home and WATCH television when you can be ON it?

I remember one woman stood in the middle of the lawn across the street from the Jones’ home and squealed with melodramatic torment to anyone within ear-shot that “… they were such NICE people…” and she “… just couldn’t BELIEVE that HE would DO this…”

Mind you, no one official had actually SAID that Mr. Jones had killed Mrs. Jones and then himself. But it appeared that when the officers had asked the neighbors when was the last time they had seen either Mr. or Mrs. Jones, everyone correctly surmised that they were both dead… then INCORRECTLY deduced that Mr. Jones was an enraged murderer, I guess because that’s how these things go on TV.

This was where everything really started to get fucked up.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones had two adult sons whom we were trying to reach to notify them of their parents’ death. Ideally, we would have dispatched uniformed officers to either their homes or their places of work so that they could be notified in person by someone who had been briefed on EXACTLY what information we did and DID NOT have at that time.

Of course, we never had the chance to perform this task in such a respectful and compassionate manner, because before I had even entered the house to completely document the scene, someone ELSE had already contacted the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Jones on facebook to ask him about the death of his parents.

Yes… on facebook.

Apparently, this person had seen the “breaking news” reports claiming that Mr. Jones had murdered his wife and then himself. Seeing the Jones’ house on the television, this “friend” realized exactly to which Mr. and Mrs. Jones the news report was referring. Rather than stand at a respectful distance and wait to see how the whole situation unfolded, this numbskull jumped on facebook and started assaulting the Jones family with queries as to what happened, then updating his own status to read that he was “shocked and saddened” by this whole turn of events…

… so shocked and saddened that he obviously had no choice but to treat the whole calamity as though it was a delectable, high-school rumor. It wouldn’t surprise me if this dip-shit posted a “selfie”, wiping tears from his eyes and wearing an expression of bewildered misery.

I was halfway through my scene assessment when my pager started beeping incessantly, Mr. Jones Jr. was calling every public service office in the county, trying to get anyone to tell him what the hell was going on.

In short order, he was directed to the Medical Examiner’s office and ultimately, to my pager, at which point, I had no choice but to call him and let him know that I really had no information to give him just yet because we had literally JUST ENTERED THE DAMN HOUSE! He asked me who told the news-reporters that his dad had killed his mom if no one had any information yet. I had to tell him that I had absolutely no idea where that report had come from. But the media does what they want- and in the absence of actual data, they just started making shit up.

It wasn’t until the next day, when Mrs. Jones autopsy was completed, that the truth of the matter came to light. Mrs. Jones had died of a brain aneurysm… a big, fat blood vessel in her head had burst and killed her. Upon finding her body, Mr. Jones was so incredibly devastated and disoriented that he hanged himself in his bedroom closet.

The local newspapers completely dropped the story at that point. The big, front-page-domestic-homicide-horror-show had dried up and they moved on to the next, fresh corpse. Mr. Jones was never publicly exonerated for killing his wife. No retraction was issued. No one apologized to the sons for spreading such a deplorable lie. No one cared, the media got their story, they got their ratings, they got their web-site hits… and that’s all that mattered to them. The neighbors got to see themselves on the nightly news, wailing like a bunch of Old Testament mourners. As far as the world knew, the man was a murderer… and that was that.

I wish I could say that was an isolated incident. Everyday I’m approached by a swarm of curious, smut-seeking lookie-loos every time I park my truck.

“What happened,” some bulging-eyed onlooker will demand as I climb out of the driver’s seat. “Is someone DEAD?” They glance at the “County Medical Examiner” printed on the door of my truck and then peer suspiciously around us, wondering if they may have overlooked some spectacular carnage.

Generally, I’ll reply: “It’s nothing. Everything’s fine,” or, “It’s not really my place to talk about it,” or I’ll say, “Dude, I’m just here to get some groceries…” because, yes… that happens.

I’ve had to herd spectators away from car accidents… people who crossed police lines and slyly sidled past fire-engines in the hopes of getting close enough to actually SEE some free-range gore.

I’ve dragged family members into bathrooms or stuffed them in that very same truck and driven a block away from a scene rather than leave those ravaged souls on display for a gaggle of neighbors whose capacity for compassion or tact seems to have evaporated out of their gaping mouths.

I’ve seen people pull out cell-phones and take pictures of blood on the pavement.

I saw one guy lift his tiny-toddler son on to his shoulders so that the little tyke could get a better view of a suicide victim who had plummeted off a parking garage at the mall… apparently, defending his boy’s right to see splattered brain tissue before heading inside to get a cinnabon.

We are over-exposed. We are over-indulged. We are over-informed. We still want blood-for-sport, just as much as the thronging crowds of the Roman Coliseum. Only now we want it in high-def surround sound on the nightly news. We want to see bodies, we want to gorge ourselves on bereavement, we want devastation and tragedy. We all want a piece of everyone’s big, fat death pie.


Why is it so hard to accept that some things really are private? Why have we all forgotten how to avert our eyes for decency’s sake?

I don’t have the answer.

All I can do, is shake my head, wave the gawkers on and say with as much pleading conviction as possible,

“Please, move along…. there’s nothing to see, here.”