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.

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?

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.”