The Suicide

The call rolled in the way they always do… Unexpectedly.

 

Which is to say that I was asleep and in absolutely no mood to go to work. I would say it had been a long night… But I can’t remember. I only know that every night feels long when the morning comes entirely too soon… heralded by the pager rudely poking you in the ear with it’s thin, insistent, needle-like beeping. Five a.m., Sunday morning… and I was on my way to a suicide… Again.

 
I heaved my sleep-heavy legs over the edge of the bed and sat there for a moment, staring quizzically at my toes, daring them to touch the floor. And with a resigned sigh, I gave up on trying to delay my journey up and out of my bedroom until I felt a bit more ready. You’re never ready, that’s the point of my job as a medical examiner… If every death were expected, we’d all be living in a poorly-scripted Disney movie and I would be out of work.
There was nothing terribly unusual about the death. Each suicide has it’s own particular character… Just like the proverbial snowflake- every one is different, but they’re still all snowflakes. They’re all, more or less, going to behave the same way. Suicides and snowflakes have a lot in common, now that I think about it. They fall, they melt and inevitably, someone is going to have to wake up obscenely early to shovel it all up so everyone else can get on with their day.

 
If I sound pissed off, it’s because I was. Emphasis on WAS.

 

It’s easy to take suicides personally when you’re an exhausted medical examiner who has seen way too many people die in way too many ways… People who fought like hell to live. It seems so wasteful at first glance, you know? Someone throwing away something that millions of other people long for… More life. It seems as though when someone commits suicide, the rest of their allotted years should be distributed amongst those who are desperately trying not to die… Like me, for example. I have an in-curable cancer diagnosis, and I want to live. I want every single one of my 78-allotted years (as is promised to me by whatever statistician decreed that the average American woman has a life expectancy that stretches into the late 70s. That fucker and I are gonna have WORDS if I ever meet him). In this way only, do I want to be average. I would love to be fucking average, rather than the freak of pathological nature that I am. As it is, I have no idea how long I have to live. At any moment, my cancer could metastasize and I could have a really fucking uncomfortable ride off of this rock we call Earth. And when I see people who have killed themselves, well… It feels kind of like being flat broke and uncertain of where your next meal is coming from… And having some dude walk up to you and burn a hundred dollar bill right in your face…

 

It’s hard to feel sorry for them.

 
Or, at least… It WAS hard to feel sorry for them.

 
In this particular case, the whole scenario was a little bit easier to take because I managed to stop for coffee on the way to the scene. Furthermore, when I got there, the investigating police correctly surmised from my overall demeanor that I was on the teetering edge of setting them on fire. Consequently, in an act of self preservation they thrust a large box of donuts in front of me and urged me to help myself to their “cop-food”. (I’m not kidding… That’s actually what they called it. Way to embrace a stereotype). So, it was with a fully caffeinated nervous system and cinnamon-bear-claw in hand that I greeted my latest customer: A guy who shot himself in the head in a suburban park.

 
Apparently, he’d been depressed and hermit-like for the last month or so and, without warning, left his parents’ home at 10 p.m… Never to return. At roughly 2 a.m. his friends and family all received the fateful text message… Something that’s becoming more and more common: the suicide text. Notes are not done so much anymore and, when you think about it, it’s really an ingenious method to convey your goodbyes.

 
Allow me to rabbit trail for a moment here… With a texted suicide note, you don’t have to worry about the note getting lost..blown off your desk by a gust of wind for example. Also, everyone gets the same note… So there’s no contesting what it said… No one can misrepresent your final words because everyone knows what they were. Lastly, there’s never the worry that you’ll die and no one will notice for a couple days. People know what you’re up to and they know to look for you. There will be none of this sitting in your apartment decomposing for a week before someone finally decides to check in. With a text message you’ll likely be found when you’re still nice and fresh for an open casket… Unless you shoot yourself in the head… Like this guy did.

 
As predicted, the moment the text message hit the airwaves, the guy’s friends and family went apeshit trying to find him. The police were called and every squad-car in the county was on the lookout for an “endangered person”. At just after 4:30 a.m. A homeless dude stumbled across our decedent’s inert form, laying at the base of a bench… bullet in his head, blood on the pavement. I’m not sure how the family came to learn that he was there, but they showed up at the scene- kept mercifully distant by the police chaplain who did a very good job of explaining to them that they couldn’t un-see their loved one’s body once they’d seen it. Usually, that’s enough to make someone think twice about insisting upon viewing a violent death.

 
I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that the death was, irrefutably a suicide. When I approached the family with the news, they were devastated and shocked… But they didn’t argue… There were no wild claims that someone MUST have murdered him… No wailing protestations that the wound MUST have been accidental. As is my job,I had to ask them a lot of difficult questions… Questions that, ultimately, colored in the outline that I had begun tracing with my investigation. With every answer, you could see the reality of the affair dawning on the family. The young man had been depressed… VERY depressed. They couldn’t say for certain what had been wrong. They couldn’t point to a particular traumatic event that set the whole thing off… There was no clinical diagnosis, no named psychosis. They couldn’t dig up the roots of his misery and identify the seed, but there was no doubt… He had been on his way to this end for some time.

 
Their sadness vibrated so strongly, I could almost hear the thrum of the wavelength as it passed through me. So I did what I’ve learned to do in these circumstances… I threw out an interrupter.

 
“Tell me something good about him.” I said to the decedent’s brothers.

 
“What?” The older one sniffled through the washout of his face.

 

“Tell me something good about him… Like, What was he good at? Tell me something he liked doing.”

 

The two men swallowed, stared at each other…

 

“He could juggle.” The younger brother almost smiled.

 

“Juggle?”

 

“Yeah… He could juggle. He was really good at it. He could hackey-sac too. He’d walk down the street, kicking the hackey-sac the whole way. His teachers in school would take it away from him, but he would go and steal it out of their desk and just keep going.”
And for just a moment, they were out… Out of the cage of their grief. He wasn’t their brother who commit suicide, he was their brother who could juggle.

 

I have no idea if it helps in any long term way. But it eases the tension of the scene just a bit… To get the family thinking something good about their dead relative… No matter how badly they went out. To throw a wrench into the gears of their devastation.

 

The rest of the whole debacle went off so uneventfully that I don’t remember anything else… Except for the fact that as I was leaving I was still so salty about being woken the hell up , stupid-early on a Sunday, that I took a picture of myself cutting through the crime-scene tape that police had looped around the park with my pink trauma shears. I told myself that I was going to post it on Facebook or something with a #thuglife, but I didn’t…. Of course. That kind of behavior isn’t expressly forbidden, but it does display an attitude that many supervisors consider threatening. So instead I just saved the picture on my phone and I pull it out and look at it when I’m feeling ornery.

 

All of this to say… I was pissed about the ungodly hour that I was roused out of bed, but I wasn’t pissed about another suicide. I actually find it hard to get angry at suicides anymore. I feel it’s kind of hypocritical of me… Since I commit suicide myself… Not too long ago.

 

I once had a co-worker who would tell me that suicide was what happened when the pain of living exceeded the pain of dying… And that’s how I came to realize that I had commit suicide.

 

I can’t think of a more accurate analogy, I commit suicide. I put the gun in my mouth and swallowed a nice, tall glass of death to it all. I took a running jump off a building that was “fuck-it” tall and counted every floor on the way down like counting the cost of a decision that is never done nickle-and-diming you to death. I sawed through the skin and gristle of my own wrist and sprayed the walls of my life with screams until my heart had nothing left to beat.

 

I got a divorce…

 

And as anyone who has ever gotten divorced can tell you… It’s like a death, but it’s hard to say whose. Was it my death? Was it his? Goodness knows the two of us crucified each other enough times with our words… And toward the end, all I could keep picturing was the anthropomorphized embodiment of our marriage, in the shape of a sick child… OUR sick child (if we’d ever had one) laying in a hospital bed, tubes and wires everywhere… Barely breathing, doctors trying to be kind while still conveying the gravity of the prognosis. anyone with experience could tell you there was no hope.

 

And I think about it.

 

I think about suicide, and divorce…and how it feels to live everyday with the thought in your head, “I can’t do this anymore.” What it feels like to carry that invisible disease of doubt around in your heart, trying to hide it, trying to fake it, trying to convince everyone (especially yourself) that this is normal. Everyone goes through hard times. No one has it easy. You don’t just give up. It would hurt so many people, it would tear everyone apart. But still, it’s there… Germinating in your mind: this uneasy, sub-sonic hum that no one else seems to hear. You start to do irrational things, behaviors that don’t make any sense to anyone on the outside. You leave for extended periods of time. Or you lock yourself in rooms. Take inordinate risks. Isolate or surround yourself with friends… Or maybe strangers. Throw out all your clothes, but new ones you never wear. Start taking pills. Go on a diet. Then over-eat. Buy a dog. Take up cross-fit… Anything to try and snap yourself out of it, that thought. “I can’t do this anymore.” I can fix it. I can fix myself. I can fight through this. You don’t just leave, you don’t just give up.

 

 

And who can possibly understand? Outwardly, you seem to have something that anyone else would want. You have a magical arrangement of circumstances and relationships that most of the world will never know: You come from intact families. Everyone is gainfully employed and educated. There’s no addiction, no debt, no problem. You’re loved by so many people who would never leave you or hurt you. What more could you possibly ask for? Except that it isn’t about “more”. It was never about “more”. Not for me.
When you finally do it, everyone thinks you’re crazy. Selfish. Cruel. They are surprised, devastated, heartbroken. They say things like “I knew there were problems, but I never thought she’d do this.” They stand over the wreckage and judge. How could you do such a thing? How could you do this to the people around you? No ones life will ever be the same, you know. When someone introduces this kind of act into a family… It opens a door. Soon other people will start doing it, too. You’re responsible for bringing this disease around. You’ve infected all of us with your unhappiness. Why couldn’t you just stay? Go on a retreat? Take up yoga? Have a baby?

 

And all I can say… All I can THINK, is that divorce is what happens when the pain of staying together is greater than the pain of breaking up.

 

I certainly don’t recommend it. It wasn’t enjoyable or easy. Some might like to suggest such a thing but they’re wrong… It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. No one in my family has ever gotten divorced. I had no guide, no map, no sympathy and no one’s approval;Just the voice of my own disquiet, slowly eating away at me like maggots devouring carrion.

 

And I think about all of those suicides… And my own judgements upon them. Some make sense… Like some divorces are irrefutably rational… So rational that no one could imagine another ending. But I think about the ones that make no sense, the ones that seem so wasteful and needlessly painful. And I realize that I can’t judge, no more than anyone can judge me for leaving. They can take their limited information, hazard a few guesses and self-righteously gossip it out over coffee.

 

 

So here I am, in my own afterlife…. Wondering about all of those suicides. Wondering where they are now and if they regret it. Are they better off where they are now? Are they content? Are they safe? Am I? And I wonder about my ex-husband… Not much, but a bit. I imagine the grief, confusion and resentment are much the same for him as if I had committed suicide. Maybe he wishes I had. Maybe that would have been easier for him.

 
Either way I hope someone is there to ask him the question, eventually if not sooner. “Tell me something good about it.” Not because I’m hoping he’ll think kindly of me, I know he won’t. But rather because I hope something can interrupt the grinding of his pain and he can remember that it wasn’t all bad. Our marriage was more than just it’s ending. I hope the scar tissue softens.

 

In the meantime, all I can do is continue to wipe the blood off my hands and recognize that, regardless of whether it was right or wrong, there’s no going back. Step away from the shed skin of the past, pass through the veil… And into the afterlife. Leaving behind a note that I’ve read so many times at work, but never really understood until now:

 

“I’m sorry. I know you may never understand, but I couldn’t do this anymore. I loved you all. I hope someday you’ll forgive me.”

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As Gangsta as Barb

So… as I’ve mentioned before, I am in the process of learning how to “cut”.  Which is to say, I’m learning how to function as an autopsy technician… or pathology assistant- the job title varies depending on who you ask.  It’s always tricky to learn something new as an adult.  I think we kind of get mired in a set habit of knowing and performing our daily tasks and then when we try something else… we don’t want to do it because we don’t already know how to do it… which totally defeats the purpose of doing something new and doesn’t make any sense… but there it is.  We don’t want to learn to do anything we don’t already know how to do.

Maybe it’s the fear of looking or feeling stupid… or it’s the fear of failure… in my case, it’s the fear of accidentally sawing off my own hand… or stabbing somebody with an AIDS infected scalpel.  Learning to “cut” is scary.

But I’m trying it… I’m doing it… I’m learning it… and I’m fortunate enough to have Barb as my teacher.  Barb is one of the two pathology assistants at the state office.  She’s a dainty little Asian lady who’s always happy and super helpful.  Whenever I’m at the state office with a body, Barb always wants to stop and chat for a few minutes… ask how things are going… and for some reason, Barb always feels compelled to tell me how skinny I am, which I think is a compliment… Anyway, Barb rocks… and she’s been super extra wonderful as a teacher as I go about the messy business of learning how to properly field dress a human being

Barb is always telling me to cut with longer strokes and more conviction.  “Be more confident!” she chirps at me as she grabs a hold of a wad of intestine and forcibly rips it free of its mesenteric mooring…  Barb has been doing this for years, and the state office usually boasts about 4 autopsies a day… all of this to say that Barb is an expert in her field and acutely and terrifyingly aware of exactly what kind of force and how much effort it takes to remove any limb or organ from a human corpse.  As a result, bodies just seem to fall off the bone under her touch… like tender beef sliding off the bone in a crock-pot… a few small, decisive cuts and she’s successfully extricated a liver, a heart, two kidneys, all five lobes of the lungs, a pancreas and a spleen… all in one lump of viscera that we in the industry refer to as “the organ block”. Dead bodies just disintegrate in front of Barb… she’s astonishing.  And she smiles the whole time

My technique isn’t quite as fluid.  I still wade through the whole process, tentatively pulling and making tiny, repetitive jabs with the scalpel as though I’m an Australian cattle-dog trying to herd the organs out of the body like livestock through a gate.  It takes time… I’m not good with dead bodies… at least not as good as Barb.  I thought I was super hard-core until I started hanging with Barb.  It’s easy to do… when the police all marvel at your nerve as you dive right into a decomposed corpse… or when you stomp up to a traumatized fire crew and announce your presence by barking, “Okay ladies, who can tell me who’s in charge of this shit show?”  It’s easy to think of yourself as being super hard core…. mega-gangsta… but the fact is I could try for all my life and never be as Gangsta as Barb.  She’s O.G.

Never has this fact been more obvious to me than during my last autopsy.  I had scheduled the time to come in when I knew Barb was going to be there, along with one of my favorite forensic pathologists, Dr. Olds.  Dr. Olds is actually quite young… the youngest of the doctors at the state.  To say he’s quirky is putting it mildly.  The first time I met Dr. Olds he had dressed up like Tiny Tim for the office Christmas party… he was wearing argyle socks and knickers… yes… knickers. He’s currently sporting a marvelous handle-bar moustache and is known to wander around the morgue in his bright orange crocks and favorite t-shirt which proudly proclaims “I think I’m a lesbian” on the front. 

As it had been a while since my last autopsy lesson, I was relatively solid with the first two gestures of the y-incision… However, as I was dragging the scalpel down the center of the sternum toward the abdomen, I found myself wobbling off the axis.  What was supposed to come next?  I couldn’t remember.  The pointers Barb had given me before were a bit hazy.  How deep was I supposed to go?  How far? What was the best technique for getting through the fascia? Did I cut through the diaphragm first or deflect the soft tissue of the thorax?

My nerves weren’t helped by the fact that this dead person was, quite frankly, a bit of a surgical anomaly.  She’d had a few abdominal surgeries and was ….a little on the large side .  I was worried about how difficult it would be to find my anatomical markers in the midst of these factors.  Dr. Olds noted my hesitation and charged right in with his own scalpel as if he was leading an expedition into a lost continent.  

“Just go long!” he bellowed at me encouragingly as he swept his scalpel down the length of the abdomen… all the way to the pubis.  I noted that Barb was backing up slightly as he did this, and all things considered, it seemed prudent to follow her lead.  I’m glad I did because in his enthusiasm to demonstrate sweeping, fearless cuts, Dr. Olds went a bit too deep and managed to slice a big-ass-hole in the large intestine…. Which is something I suddenly remembered Barb telling me on my last autopsy… that you wanted to go long… but careful…because you’d nick the transverse colon and then you’d have shit everywhere.

And literally, suddenly there was shit… everywhere. For those of you who aren’t up on your anatomy, the large intestine is the victory lap for your digestive track- it’s the last path that solid waste material travels before it leaves your body and becomes the sanitation department’s problem.

The woman had, undeniably, been an eater and whatever she’d consumed roughly 16 hours prior to her demise was now seeping through a gaping hole in her large intestine and into her abdominal cavity.  It was… shitty.  But Barb just smilingly carried on as Dr. Olds retreated back from the fecal fountain to busy himself with making labels for the tissue sample containers. 

For the most part, the rest of the autopsy went on without incident.  We deflected back the epidermis, hacked through the ribs with a bolt cutter and removed the organ block without getting too messy.  Barb managed to almost magically avoid coming into contact with any poop… while still finagling out the intestines in such a way that she was able to show me where the decedent had undergone a gastric bypass surgery.  The procedure had turned the already labyrinthine structure of the small intestine into a hopeless knot and I resisted the urge to quip that maybe we’d find the Minotaur wandering around in there somewhere.  As the new kid, I didn’t want to get too out of hand with the morgue humor.

Everything was going really well, actually. After Dr. Olds faux pas with the guts, I had managed to get my sea-legs under m a bit more and the removal of the trachea had gone just swimmingly when Dr. Olds asked us to finish up with a radical hysterectomy.

A radical hysterectomy is the removal of all the female reproductive organs… all at once.  I’m not sure what the difference is between a radical hysterectomy and just a plain-old mundane hysterectomy… maybe one just listens to thrasher metal during a radical hysterectomy… or performs the procedure while also engaging in some form of extreme sport. Hysterectomy while wake-boarding… or bungee jumping.  Anyway, it was new territory for me and Barb was more than happy to guide me through yet another aspect of the human autopsy.  She reached down into the already vacant abdominal cavity and wrapped her hand around the light-bulb-sized lump of muscle that made up the woman’s cervix and uterus.  Explaining as she went, Barb traced the uterus and then the twin fingers of each fallopian tube as they extended upward towards the ovaries.

“Oh,” Barb flinched as she palpated each ovary in its little flesh-sac. “She had ovarian cysts.”  Barb’s fingers gently probed each ovarian capsule with a delicacy I had never seen her employ.  “Okay,” she said as she motioned for me to step forward and traverse this, latest challenge. “Now, you’ve got to be careful, because these ovarian cysts are under pressure and they can rupture.”  Following Barb’s lead, I reached in and wrapped my hand around the uterus, then watched as she motioned for me to simply cut a swift, horizontal incision across the cervical opening…

… I was so intent on watching Barb’s demonstration, that I failed to notice that I had not only grasped the uterus in my shaking hand, but I had inadvertently also managed to capture a fallopian tube and an ovary as well.  Furthermore, in anticipation of this new-and-latest task, my grip had tightened on the organ until I was, literally, squeezing it as though I was hoping to drink its contents for breakfast.  I was squeezing it so hard that, as Barb leaned in to watch my cutting technique, one of the ovarian cysts gave way and popped like a zit. 

The following mili-seconds went by with the gruesome slow-motion clarity of a fatal auto-wreck.  I watched in suspended horror as the encapsulated pocket of fluid shot out of the body as though fired from a squirt gun.  With sniper-like aim, the missile rocketed straight out of the abdominal cavity, past our flailing hands as we reached up to shield ourselves… and struck Barb square across the face… making a sickening “SPLAT!” as it found it’s mark. 

(It may occur to one to ask the question at this moment, why wasn’t Barb wearing some kind of a face shield or eye protection? Well, the fact is most autopsy techs usually do, but since Barb is such a bad-ass and never spatters anything… Like EVER. She stopped wearing anything that impeded her vision or made her feel claustrophobic.)

No one said anything for a moment. I stood, trapped in the hanging breath of my gasp, frozen in place, scalpel still in my hand as Barb calmly walked over to the sink and began rinsing her face off. Dr Olds, who witnessed the entire event, was likewise completely motionless as he stood at the cutting board with a dripping kidney in his hand. When he did move, he glanced to me wearing an expression of intermingled disgust, amusement and pity… And was it my imagination, or did I see a bit of relief? Likely because his poopy-faux-pas was no longer the grossest thing that had happened that day. When I finally did re-engage my brain-stem and start breathing again, the garbled apology tumbled out of my mouth like a mud-slide of contrition.

“Oh my… Barb, I… Oh GOD, ummm. I’m SO… Oh jeez..”

And, true to form, Barb responded with what I can only imagine was the most gangsta statement ever made by someone who cuts people up for a living…

“Oh don’t worry about it,” She soothingly cooed as she walked back to the autopsy table. “My mouth was closed.”

She went on from there, telling me that at least the decomposing body fluid with which I had just lacquered her cheek was clear… So it didn’t smell too bad and, theoretically, it was free of infection. I can’t remember what all she said… More than anything, I was shocked and overcome with hero worship for the woman who was inexplicably trying to make ME feel better about the fact that I had just popped a dead woman’s ovarian cyst on her face …

Dr. Olds shook his head and went back to sawing the dead woman’s organs into pieces. Barb and I finished up without further incident. Every now and then I would, again, attempt to apologize… And Barb would, again, casually wave off my pleas with such benevolence, it really made me wonder what the hell else had happened to her during autopsies that made my transgression so benign…
But I’ll never ask her.
Barb’s not the kind of person to whom you ask the question, “What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?”
Whatever it was, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t handle it… I mean, I can handle a lot. The cops live in awe of my ability to wrestle decomposing corpses. The fire department cowers whenever I produce an 18″ long hollow needle and announce that it’s toxicology time… But I’ll never be as gangsta as Barb…
… Not by a long shot…
… Right across the face….
… With an ovarian cyst…

 

A day in the life

Sometimes, in life… we are asked to do thing we don’t like.  As an adult we come to terms with those instances and muscle through because that’s what life is… soldering on even when you don’t want to.  Fortunately, this was not one of those times.

Right now, at work, we have a new administrator… someone who is still wet behind the ears and hoping to make his mark as being a really hard-nosed go-getter.  (I’ve never met the dude myself… this is just what I’ve benn told) He wants everyone to know that he’s watching and evaluating and considering… and his ambitious young eye recently turned to the medical examiner’s office.  He’s decided he doesn’t understand how our schedules work and figures we might be working too little and getting paid too much.  One of our program managers, in an effort to justify our income, has asked that each of us perhaps document a day’s activities while on shift… so she might have something to show this steely-eyed whipper-snapper to prove that the medical examiners actually ARE worth the pittance we are being paid.

My response to this request was, “You want me to write about my job?  Oh no! PLEASE don’t throw me into that, there briar-patch!”

So here’s what the administrator got…  I’m not sure if I expect to be promoted or fired:

 

-09:00- I wake up. This  represents a late start for me, but this was my second 24 hours out of 48.  The previous evening… Or rather…morning… As in somewhere between midnight and 9 a.m. … I was awoken 3 times by St. Jerome’s hospital, calling to report deaths that had occurred in the emergency apartment.  The third time, I try to affect a little humor and I say to the charge nurse: “Wow! Another one? What are you guys putting in your I.V.s over there?”

She does not laugh.

Anyway, each of these calls takes up approximately a half hour of time since every question that I ask about the given decedent is met with the answer: “I don’t know… Let me check…”

The questions haven’t changed… In the 5 years since my hiring date… they haven’t changed.  I spend an additional 15 minutes of the early morning staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, wondering why everyone always seems so shocked when I ask for the decedent’s name.

-09:30- I go to Starbucks to get a morning “cup of ambition” (Thank you Dolly Parton). While there, I run into the county epidemiologist who tells me she left some homemade cookies on the Medical Examiner desk for me and my co-workers. I am giddy with anticipation…. Cookies!

-09:40- Upon my arrival at our cubicle in the public services building, there are no cookies on my desk… Or anywhere in the cubicle, I know because I spend 5 minutes frantically tearing through every possible hiding place where these alleged cookies might be lurking.  I ask our secretary about these cookies.  She unapologetically states that, despite the fact that she has a huge bag of leftover Halloween candy in her desk, and a dish of this candy prominently displayed ON her desk… She and our program supervisor ate the cookies that had been left on the medical examiners’ desk.  “I didn’t know when you’d be coming in…” She states. “You guys aren’t here very often and I didn’t think food should be left on your desk.”

Never mind the fact that there is a dish of food permanently stationed on her desk at all times.

I say nothing but remind myself that I know how to dispose of bodies… If it should come to that…

-09:45 until 12 noon- I spend the next few hours at the office.  I type up the cases from last night, which takes up roughly 30 minutes apiece.  I also read through and summarize  some medical records that I received from a hospital the day before regarding a case from my last shift.  Recognizing that these records aren’t really sufficient, I fax over a request to the decedent’s primary care provider. Doctor’s offices are notoriously slow about sending records… I might get them next week.  I also return a call to a funeral home regarding another doctor who’s supposed to sign a death certificate.  The doctor doesn’t want to do it, which happens often, but I’m not sure why.  They act like we’re asking them to go state’s evidence on the mob or something.  I call the doctor’s office and leave a message telling him that I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

-12:30- I go home (a 5 minute walk) and eat lunch… an apple with almond butter and a power bar.

-12:50- I get called to the scene of a death. A 63 year-old gentleman who lived alone and apparently hated going to see doctors… despite his gout, pre-diabetes, peripheral neuropathy and heart disease.  Instead, he has been self-medicating with a steady diet of marijuana and porn.  This treatment has not been terribly effective, since his foot and leg pain were evidently so severe that he just sat in his easy-chair in front of the television, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka.  In fact, his foot pain was so bad, rather than get up to use the bathroom, he would relieve himself in old juice bottles that had stacked up around him like a fortress.  He had been deceased for  minimum of 3 weeks, judging by the post mortem changes. The house smells awesome. I briefly consider a career change to a Starbucks barista… I bet that smells good.

-12:50- While I’m at the wonderfully fragrant house, I get a phone call from a Washington County Detective.  He needs help facilitating the fingerprinting of a dead body that is currently at the state office.

-13:40- While still at the scene, where the  ambient fragrance of the dead guy and his urine has thoroughly wormed it’s way into my hair (so I’ll be smelling it all day now) I get another call from a funeral home, asking for help finding a doctor to sign another death certificate.

-14:00– I release the dead guy from the scene and drive to Planet Fitness… figuring that if I can’t smell good, I’d better look good.  While driving to the gym, I return the call to the funeral home. I also do some arranging and finagling and the fingerprinting gets scheduled to take place tomorrow morning.

-14:10- At the gym, no one wants to use the treadmills next to mine… I am not surprised.

-14:40- While sweating my brains out, I am paged to call an Oswald County officer who’s at the scene of a death.  The decedent is 55 years old and has a phenomenal medical history.  There is no trauma and nothing suspicious about the death so I release the decedent from the scene to the on-call funeral home.  However, no one has any access to the next of kin.  The guy allegedly has two kids who live in Utah.  The police officer says he’ll get back to me about whether or not they manage to make contact with these kids. (Spoiler alert: the officer never gets back to me… one way or the other… I am not surprised) This whole interaction takes about 40 minutes.

-16:00- While I am driving back home, I get a call from the local organ donation service about the above-mentioned 55 year old.  I call them and tell them that if I were in need of retinas, I certainly wouldn’t want his… he had a history of drug abuse and alcoholism… additionally, there’s no next of kin to ask for permission to donate.

-16:30- I get called to a city on the edge of the county for a death.  The decedent is a 43-year-old woman who has had multiple interactions with the police in the past.  She was known for having paranoid delusions and would often call them to come and clear the aliens out of her apartment.  The officer tells me she has killed herself.  I ask how he knows that.  The officer admits that he can’t be sure… because the decedent has been deceased for no less than a month and a half and no one was willing to get close enough to the corpse to actually ascertain a possible cause of death.

-16:40 (or so)- On my way to the scene of the 43-year-old woman, I get a page stating that a woman by the name of “Melinda” called the office with a series of questions for a medical examiner.  When I call her back during my drive, Melinda tells me that she is 61, she lives alone and she wants to know what will happen to her when she dies… not in a metaphysical sense… she wants to know how, exactly she would be found and what would happen to her body… since she doesn’t have any family. I take Melinda through the general processes involved in a death where the decedent has no next of kin.  Melinda is a talker… and she’s clearly happy to have someone listening.  It becomes more and more obvious that Melinda’s solitude in the world is getting to her because with every answer that I give to her questions… she launches into a 5 to10 minute long soliloquy about her life.  Moreover, English is not Melinda’s first language so due to her poor grammar and thick accent, I can barely understand what’s she’s saying.  I pray that I’m making the appropriately sympathetic responses because half of what she says is a complete loss.  It takes a while… and if I had anything else to do I’d excuse myself from the conversation.  But I figure what the hell.  I’m stuck in traffic on the interstate and Melinda clearly needs someone to talk to.

-17:15- I finally arrive at the scene of my latest death and as I heave myself out of the county vehicle… is it my imagination… or do I smell the unmistakable odor of human decomposition?  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been able to smell a body from the street…  It’s something that the TV shows always get wrong, I muse to myself as I unload my bags and equipment.  Those murder mysteries and crime dramas always show the lead characters bent over, face deep in dead bodies as though the scent of putrefaction were barely more troublesome than someone eating a garlicky pizza.  The truth is even the most wizened veterans cannot abide the odor of a decomposition.  We only withstand it because we’re paid to do so… It’s vile.  Never is that fact more obvious than right as I walk into the residence of this decedent, the 43 year old who hasn’t been seen for 6 weeks. She appears to have barricaded herself into her apartment by wedging a large bookcase against the front door.  Then she hid under her bed with a wide array of mind-altering substances nearby.  She’s dressed in a bizarre arrangement of socks and scarves and she looks as though she stumbled off the set of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video… she’s green, oozing with maggots and almost mummified.  One of the police officers at the scene is a rookie and much to the delight of the other officers at the scene, I have this newbie help me roll the body over so I can examine her back for injuries.  Not only is this his first decomp… it’s his first dead body.  He gags a couple of times, but manages to keep his lunch down.  The force is strong with this one.

All the same, I briefly consider a career change to wedding consultant… I can handle vomiting people, right?

I am at this scene for 3 hours, which actually isn’t that bad.  I’ve been on  homicide scenes for up to 12 hours in the past.  The police and I spend that time sifting through the utterly trashed apartment, counting prescription pills and trying to make sense of this woman’s final hours.  In the midst of this process:

-18:30- I get a call from a nursing home.  They are calling to report a death to me.  “Just to let me know,” they say… because they’ve already notified the family and called the funeral home.  I have to explain to the nursing home that unless their patient was in hospice, they can’t release the body to the funeral home and they have to treat the death the same as any other… meaning they still have to call 911, there still must be an investigation… even if the decedent had a DNR.  They sound flabbergasted.  They’re so flabbergasted that it takes me about 20 minutes to convince them that I know what I’m talking about and they need to call non-emergency dispatch.

-19:20- We’re still counting pills at the scene when we hear from dispatch that the officers who were sent to notify our decedent’s mother of the death have come up dry.  The last known address was a wash.  Mom’s not there anymore, she moved away two years ago.  We only have a phone number.  The police with me at the scene look panicked.  I tell them not to worry, that I will make the call.  I’ve done it before.  Back when I was an intern in Arizona, we ONLY did phone notifications… none of this “face-to-face” or “in-person” notification business.  I got to be pretty good at ruining people’s days as gently as possible… and since I cut my professional teeth making such calls, I dial the number and make it happen.  All things considered, Mom takes the news of her daughter’s death pretty well…  Even when I tell her that her daughter has been dead for quite a while and the family probably shouldn’t have any sort of viewing… let alone an open casket.  She tells me she’s surprised… but also not surprised.  This is a common reaction. Still, I consider a career change to an STD clinic nurse… those phone calls HAVE TO be easier… right?

-20:10- I’m literally walking past the requisite crowd of curious neighbors as I leave the scene of the decomp when the pager goes off again.  Instead of going to get something to eat like I was planning, (When is the last time I ate? Was it Starbucks? I’m not sure.  I would know if I’d had any cookies but… well… you know…) I am now going to a different town in my county where a morbidly obese gentleman was found deceased in his room by his roommate.  Apparently, I wasn’t able to hide my exasperation at having to go to another scene from the officer who called me… I know this because he takes pity on me and has a fellow officer run out and grab me a cup of coffee before I arrive at this next scene.  Coffee is better than cookies! I think to myself as I gulp it down upon my arrival. And someone needs to give the Oswald County cops a raise! The death is fairly benign, but it appears the decedent didn’t have a primary physician so his medical history and exact cause of death is a bit hazy.  The roommate who found him tells us that he was an insufferable alcoholic who drank all the time.  But we have to temper this information with the fact that this roommate’s first order of business upon finding the decedent… was to get completely shit-faced herself.  She’s not exactly what you’d call a reliable historian.  Reliable historians don’t wave half-empty bottles of Jim Beam in your face while you’re trying to interview them.

During this scene investigation, the officer with me gets a call from the decedent’s family.  Apparently, the roommate took it upon herself to call and notify them of the death.  The family is understandably upset, however their sadness also has a slight tinge of anger and suspicion.  They believe the roommate’s adult granddaughter… who never liked the decedent and often told her grandmother to kick him out… somehow murdered the decedent.  I’m not sure where they got this idea… likely from an episode of CSI, because in the real world disliking someone doesn’t equate to being their murderer. Still, they insist on talking to me and airing their belief that the granddaughter poisoned the decedent’s food or something.  Their allegation has no basis in reality, but because they threw it out there, the officer and I have to consider the possibility… I’m just glad the family didn’t claim that the decedent was kidnapped by aliens and the body left in his place was a ringer.  I have no idea how we’d disprove THAT.

-22:13- While I’m still dealing with the dead guy, his drunken roommate, the irate granddaughter (who showed up to revel in her enemy’s demise) and the suspicious family… I get another death call.  This is an elderly woman at St. Jerome’s hospital.  Her death is not terribly complicated, but, as always, the nurse with whom I speak has absolutely no information on the decedent.  The nurse gives the usual excuses for this:  She just came on shift and was told to call the M.E.  The decedent wasn’t her patient. She can’t find anything in the chart etc. etc.  I hear these excuses ALL THE TIME…. Leading me to believe that nursing shifts at the hospital must be about 5 minutes long- because everyone is always “just coming on”.  There’s one mysterious nurse who’s in charge of all the patients and who never calls us because we ONLY get called by nurses who claim the dead patient isn’t “theirs”… and perhaps the hospital charts are written in Sanskrit… About 30 minutes go by while I try to make heads or tails of this conversation

In the mean-time, I overhear on the officer’s radio that an ambulance is being dispatched to the local Hannaford Supermarket for a heroin overdose in the bathroom.  Apparently, the officer sees my face as I hear this because he immediately switches his radio feed to his ear-piece and tells me not to worry about it… so I don’t.  If the guy in the Hannaford’s bathroom is dead and I’m about to be dispatched there… the officer would tell me, right?

-22:40- I am leaving the scene of the dysfunctional roommate call after having drawn blood for toxicology… at the request of the family. Because apparently they cannot be dissuaded from their theory that the roommate’s granddaughter is a criminal mastermind.  (Having met her, I am disinclined to agree.  She doesn’t strike me as being overly clever… just really loud) As I crawl back into the county truck, my pager goes off again.  I am being dispatched to a deceased overdose in the bathroom of the local Fred Meyer.  The officer who assured me “not to worry” is nowhere to be seen. Someone needs to fire every patrol officer in Oswald County! I rage to myself as I put the truck in drive and proceed to the Hannaford’s.

-22:50- When I get there, the store is about 10 minutes from closing.  There are a few curious customers still milling about and a handful of store employees.  They are all gathered close by the hallway where the bathrooms can be found.  Anyone who isn’t a cop looks frightened and lost… and that’s probably the only thing that keeps me from purchasing a rotisserie chicken and devouring the entire bird right there using only my hands and teeth… I figure these fine citizens are already traumatized enough.

The deceased young man in the bathroom does not have any illicit substances on him, nor is there a syringe present.  The young man’s cell-phone is also missing. However we do find a syringe cap, as well as a used alcohol wipe… which is weird because most heroin addicts don’t bother to swab their skin clean before injecting.  So maybe this guy was… I don’t know… a really clean heroin user.  The lack of evidence, and lack of cell phone… along with the fact that the bathroom door was unlocked when the guy was found, all of this indicates that when he overdosed someone was in the bathroom with him.  Doubtless, when the young man went unconscious and couldn’t be roused, this other person grabbed any evidence that could link them to the incident and took off.  The police take custody of security camera recordings in the hopes they might see who accompanied the young man into the bathroom… but no one is holding their breath… except the dead guy.  He’s going to be holding it for a long time.

I perform a blood draw and a urine draw so that we can conduct toxicology on this case.  I take the requisite pictures.  And in about 2 hours, I’m leaving the scene, climbing into the county truck when the pager goes off again

-00:30- St. Jerome’s has another death.  He’s 63 years old with a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm.  I blearily write down notes in my notebook… each letter I write looks vaguely like a dancing stick figure at a rave.  I hope I’ll be able to read my writing tomorrow when I find myself mired in paperwork purgatory.

-00:50- I am driving away from the Hannaford’s and I’m halfway home when my pager goes off again.  I go ahead and cuss a few times because I think I’ve earned it and call the number on the pager to find it’s one of the officers at the Hannford’s call. I left my camera there.  I can see my home from where I am, but turn the truck around to drive back the way I came.  The officer offers to meet me halfway and deliver the camera to me in the parking lot of an auto-parts store.  Just like that, the Oswald County Sheriff’s department is, once again, the greatest law enforcement agency in all the world.

When the officer and I meet in the parking lot, I ramble out some smeared, bleary-eyed expression of gratitude and she smiles… because she knows.  Everyone in the county has been listening to the dead bodies roll in over the radio.

-01:00 to 02:00- Even though I should probably go to bed, I stay up and eat some dinner (breakfast?) and get some preliminary case-file writing done… just so I have an outline to follow tomorrow when all of the report writing and phone-calling begins in earnest.  Each case (both partials and full, alike) represents anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours of follow up work… depending on the complexity of the story, the availability of the next of kin and the cooperation of multiple other agencies… including, but not limited to law enforcement, hospitals, physicians, funeral homes etc.

At about 2 a.m. I fall into bed… and dream of my new career… as a professional aerobics instructor.  I bet I’d be good at that…

 

 

 

#MedicalExaminerProblems

I have a super cool job, I’m not gonna lie.

This profession has allowed me to do all kinds of nifty stuff.  For example:

There aren’t many jobs out there where you are allowed… and, in fact, encouraged to cut up human beings.

I recently decided that it would be beneficial to get some cross-training with the autopsy/pathology technicians.  It’s been at least a decade since I took Anatomy and Physiology, and it’s a good idea to maintain a solid familiarity with what goes on with people internally, this will help me to evaluate dead people externally.  Furthermore, there are some jurisdictions in the country where the medicolegal death investigators are also the autopsy technicians… so to make myself more marketable in this field (should I ever want to leave my current position… which doesn’t seem likely. But still, never say never) it would behoove me to know how to “cut”.

This is what the pathologists called it when they called me to schedule my autopsy lessons.

“So I understand you want to learn to cut,” they would say, as though I was asking for instruction on how to knit or dance the tango.  “Well that’s just super!  I’ve got a post (short for “a post-mortem exam”) tomorrow morning that I think would be a great way for you to get your feet wet!”

I wasn’t sure if this was a euphemism or not.

(Turns out it was both figurative and literal.)

Anyway, thats how I found myself elbow deep in a dead guy with Dr. Smith standing over me, cheering me on. “That’s it!” he bellowed. “Really get your elbow into it, nice long strokes!”  It turns out, the doctors were enthusiastic about me jumping right in, so to speak, because not long ago, they had something of an autopsy technician drought.  They only had one tech for four doctors. Sure, they could have put out a cattle call for autopsy techs, but apparently it really IS hard to find good help these days.  Posting an add on Craigslist isn’t exactly a great way to find quality “cutters”.  And nobody wanted to deal with an influx of nut-jobs who all clamined to be proficient at chopping people up.

Consequently, when someone relatively known and trustworthy… as in I had already passed an extensive background check… stated that they wanted to learn to “cut”, the doctors were delighted.

Of course the downside of this new training of mine was the fact that I am now WAY TOO familiar with the odor of freshly exposed, ripe, un-preserved human intestines… which is one of the more ghastly aspects of the whole autopsy experience. Human intestines smell just awful.  I mean really, REALLY rank.  And just this morning, when I was about to add some cooked rice to my frittata, I couldn’t help but notice that, when i opened up the tupperware container,  the week old rice gave off a waft of stench that was so acutely similar to that of human intestines, I quietly gagged, fed the offedning substance to my dogs and had to cook a whole new batch of rice.  My breakfast was delayed for half an hour. #MedicalExaminerProblems.

Another cool thing that I get to do is go and look at bones that people dig up.  You may not know this, but the ground around us is simply littered with all manner of bones.  Generally these bones completely disintigrate before we see them.  But things die around us all the time and we don’t typically notice… until something dies and leaves behind a bone that looks like it might be human.

People find bones all the time.  Folks find them when they dig up their garden, when they do home improvements, when they put a new fence in their yard.  Usually these bones are either old, chewed up butcher bones that someone gave to a dog long ago… or they are the bones of a pet that was buried by a previous property owner.

I don’t mind going out to look at bones.  It gives me a chance to interact with the public in a way that doesn’t involve me explaining their loved one’s cause and manner of death.  And besides, so far no one has presented me with anything that was actually a human bone.  However, sometimes I am dealt a wild card.

Last week, I was called out to a rural part of my county for a discovered bone.  I wasn’t busy so I went ahead and drove out to the location, only to find that the sheriff’s deputy that had originally made contact with the property owners and then called me in… he was was long gone.  I rolled up to the location he gave me and I didn’t see a deputy vehicle anywhere.  I called him up to ask if I had the address right and he said he was sorry, but he had to leave.  There was a big car accident nearby (non-fatal, he assured me) and the accident trumped the bone discovery.  “But the property owners are expecting you”.  He said.  “They’ll take you out to the bone.”

That’s how I came to be perched on the back of an ATV, getting carried off into the woods with a couple of complete strangers.  I had my scene bag and some suppplies with me, but otherwise I was defenseless and completely at the mercy of these folks… who seemed very nice and earnest.  But still, for some reason whenever I am being led into a densely wooded area by strangers, I can’t shake the suspicion that they’re taking me out there to kill me.  We parked the ATV  and hiked into a dry river bed on the edge of their property.  On the way into the woodlands they gushed about how they had just moved to the area and how much they loved exploring their new property and , my my, isn’t the fall foliage lovely?  Meanwhile I was following them at a safe distance and evaluating their body mass, muscle-tone and overall fightability i case I had to  fend them off and then run for my truck…. because I don’t always ASSUME the worst, but I like to be prepared for it… just in case.  #MedicalExaminerProblems

My caution was completely forgotten though when they pointed out the bone.

It was utterly magnificent… and marvelously weird.  Here, take a look:

IMG_0180

For those of you who can’t see it too well (because this is a crappy picture taken with my cell-phone)  That’s a long bone shaft with two articulated phalanges, most likely tarsals… OR, in daily-speak.  What you have there is a distal limb- either a front leg or a back leg, with two toes still attached… and in case you hadn’t already picked up on this, No, it’s most decidedly NOT human.

So… it’s weird because it’s actually really big.  This picture doesn’t do it justice because I was in a hurry to get my hands on it and I forgot to put something down next to it to offer scale comparison.   But this little gem here is a DENSE bone, and it’s BIG.  About 1.5 times the length of an average adult human radius (imagine elbow to your wrist).  Length-wise it’s comparable to an average adult human femur (thigh to your knee) but it’s way too thick and the morphology (General shape) is all wrong.  And by the way, yes, I did say there are two toes there… toes that are disproportionately big compared to the rest of the bone… and there’s only two.  There no talus (heel bone) and it didn’t really look like it used to have one and it just fell off or was chewed off by an animal.  All this to say, I had absolutely no fucking CLUE where the hell this bone came from.  It was probably a quadruped, but other than that, the animal that yielded himself to the hereafter and thereby left this bone in a dry river bed… was completely outside my realm of experience.  Leading me to tell the couple who found it that it was from a Minotaur.

They blinked at me.

“Either that or it’s Sasquatch.”

Seriously, though, I followed that up with telling them that I really wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew it wasn’t human and therefore, it was of no LEGAL interest to the county and/or state.  However, since it was something of a mystery, I would be happy to take it off their hands and deliver it to the state forensic anthropologist who liked to get weird animal bones for the sake of comparison and study.  She might know what it was.  They were, above all, delighted to hear that there weren’t human remains scattered on their new real-estate acquisition.  And they were really enthusiastic to hear what the bone was… as was the sheriff’s deputy who I called back to tell him that while he had been dealing with his auto-wreck, I had determined that the bone was non-human.

“Well, if you ever find out what it is, let me know,” he said.  “That shit was way weird.”

I packed up the bone in a paper bag and stowed it in the county vehicle, switching it to my own vehicle at the end of shift because I was planning to head down to the state office to do some more “cutting” on my day off and I figured I’d deliver it to the anthropologist at that time.

I called her before the end of my shift and when she answered, I couldn’t help but gleefully tell her that a dragon bone had been found in our county. (Quickly followed by an explanation that , it wasn’t REALLY a dragon bone.  I simply had no idea what kind of bone it WAS….because I don’t think she would have picked up on that if I hadn’t told her.)

“Cool!” she chirped in response.  “Bring it on in! I can’t wait to see it!”

It took some time, but when I finally did bring the bone in to Dr. Tilly, she was utterly mystified as well.  “I really have no idea what it is,” she murmured.  “I think it really IS a dragon bone.”

The bone actually ended up languishing in my car for a couple of days because I didn’t get down to the state as soon as I thought I would.  I had a bunch of errands to run and mundane tasks to attend to. The dragon bone made my car stink a little bit, but I didn’t notice until a passenger pointed it out… because everything smells like death to me… all the time #MedicalExaminerProblems.

Maybe 24 hours later, I was hanging out with my dog, having a nice little free evening, in which I planned to watch some Netflix, eat some chocolate and basically sleep for a good eight or nine hours.  I meandered over to my dog’s crate where he was chilling and noted with some dismay that he had puked up his breakfast from earlier in the day.

“What’s the matter, little buddy?” I asked as I picked him up and carried him over to the bed where there was more light.  As though in response to the question, my petite terrier-mix rescue pup promptly yarked up a whole gut-full of fluid, foam and bile. “Holy shit!” I shrieked, as the whole mess dumped right onto the clean sheets. I quickly put the dog on the floor and whisked the sheets into a wadded-up knot before the fluids could seep into the mattress pad.  Then I picked up my dog and headed for the door… not really a moment of hesitation.  I know my dog and I’ve seen him vomit up any number of substances. Whatever the hell this business was, it wasn’t benign and it wasn’t normal or okay. My little dog seemed somnolent almost to the point of unconsciousness.  His breathing was sporadic and shallow and he only managed to wag his tail weakly at me as I interrogated him for info. Much as I hated the thought, we were headed to the 24-hour emergency vet.

The wait was agonizing.  After I showed up at their door in my pajamas with a frantic explanation of his symptoms, the vet clinic staff spirited my little dog away for evaluation and treatment.  Despite the fact that I was the only person in the place at midnight, it still took them an hour to come talk to me, and when they did, the conversation wasn’t exactly enlightening.

“Given his presentation, we think it may be some kind of ingestion.  Can you think of anything he might have eaten in the last couple of days that might have been bad for him?”

I couldn’t think of anything he had eaten other than his food, which had all been vomited up.  The vet said that she had given him some anti-nausea meds, but she thought the best course of action was to perform an abdominal x-ray to see what was in there.

Another 2 hours passed, during which I completed every cross-word puzzle in the waiting room.  The vet reappeared and informed me that there seemed to be something spongy in my dog’s colon.  “It might be stuffing from a stuffed animal or something… but it’s causing a bowel obstruction.  That’s where all the vomiting came from.”

“Okay,” I prompted. “So, what can we do about that?  He doesn’t need surgery, does he?”

“No,” she said. “It’s managed to get through his small intestine, which is GOOD.  Now we just have to get it out of his large intestine.  We’ll give him repeated enemas until it comes out… Usually it only takes one, but it might take up to three.  We’ll sedate him first.”

“Okay, that’s fine, great.  Do whatever you have to.”

Another two hours and it was now inching closer to 5 a.m. when a vet technician came to the front desk and started doing some paperwork.

“Hey,” I called to him as I stumbled up from my chair.  “What’s going on with my dog? Is he okay? Did the stuff come out?”

The vet tech looked at me as though I was a ragged-haired, wild-eyed, sleep-deprived crazy person… strange.

“The doctor will be out in a second to let you know what’s going on,” He said haughtily.

When the doctor did come out, a few minutes later, she had a quizzical expression on her face.

“Did it come out? What was it?” I pleaded.

“Well, we’re not sure…” she said. “It turned out to be these little white pellet-like things.  It looked spongy on the x-ray because these little pellets were suspended in his fecal matter.  I’m really not certain what they were.”

“Jeez,” I gaped. “You don’t think they were fertizier pellets or anything, do you?”

“No… they were hard… like they might have been bone or something.  Did he have a bone?”

“Oh my GOD…” I whispered, the truth finally hitting home.  “It was the dragon bone…”

Suddenly, I remembered.  I had taken my little dog to his regular vet to get shots right after the end of my last shift… and hadn’t I run into a Starbucks really quick to grab a cup of coffee?  And hadn’t that bone been sitting on the floor of the front seat?  And hadn’t it smelled… unpleasant by human standards…but probably downright delectable to a dog?  AND hadn’t I noticed a hole in the bag when I dropped it off for the anthropologist… a little ragged hole that I passed off as being from a rough edge of the bone cutting through the paper as I wrapped it up?  Couldn’t that little hole have been caused by a set of little teeth… belonging to a little dog… who just racked up a  BIG vet bill?

$700.00 later…

I have no idea what kind of bone my dog at chewed on. That plugged up his little guts. I’ve called Dr. Tilly a few times, asking her if she’s figured it out yet… and I suspect she thinks my preoccupation with identifying this obviously-non-human bone is a little… obsessive.

What can I say?  If my dog consumed the tissue of a mystical animal… any number of things may happen… so now, here I sit… staring at my little 10-pound terrier mix, waiting for the bomb to drop.  For all I know, at any moment he might sprout wings and… horns… and start flying around the apartment… breathing fire all over the place… Furious and vengeful because I’m the bitch who gave the go ahead for him to have foreign items inserted in his little puppy-butt. “Do whatever you have to do” I told them. When my dog turns into a dragon, he’s gonna kill me…

IMG_0122

… any second now…

PUCK!

…waiting…

#MedicalExaminerProblems

Poor Clothing Choices, Part II: Jail is a Cold, Cold Place

I don’t always make the best choices… professionally speaking

This may come as a shock to some.  But the fact is, On multiple occasions, I have really screwed myself over when it came to my career path.

For example, It probably wasn’t the best idea to sleep with my supervisor back when I was a paramedic.  But ambulances and bad decisions kind of go hand-in-hand so I’m writing myself a pass on that one.

I probably could have been a bit more of a team player at Starbucks, and maybe I came off a bit surly when I walked out of that mandatory training class in which we were being indoctrinated with corporate coffee lingo and told we needed to sell more plastic shit from China.

… what can I say, I had somewhere else to be.

The jury’s still out on whether or not it was wise to nail my paramedic field instructor’s ass to the wall for sexual harassment.  Ultimately, it BURIED me as far as working EMS in THAT town went, but the fact is, I just couldn’t stomach having that self-important, loud-mouthed douche-bag demand that I tell him how I chose to style my pubic hair.

Even now, my decision to write a blog about my medical-examiner misadventures undoubtedly communicates a certain lack of critical thinking… It could be an employment Armageddon if these stories fell into “the wrong hands”.

Anyway… moving on…

Most of my on-the-job blunders have gone pretty vanilla… no more ill-advised affairs or flagrant sedition.   Nowadays, pretty much my only indiscretions involve my wardrobe.

In the first, “Poor Clothing Choices” post.  I shared a tale of how the local police force came to be acquainted with my lingerie preferences.  It was an embarrassing little incident, not only for me (because, after all, I was the one flashing the purple leopard-print bra), but also for the officers involved.  I mean really… talk about awkward.

I think that the primary reason it was so terribly, terribly uncomfortable for my law enforcement colleagues was not simply due to the partial disrobing of a woman… because, honestly, the police, the paramedics and other emergency workers see people in various levels of undress all the goddamned time… I think the real issue was due to the fact that the partially disrobed woman was ME.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think that those of us in emergency services tend to shut off the portions of our brains that involve sexuality and eroticism.  At least I do.  I deal with dead bodies all the time.  How creepy would it be if I left the sexy-switch in the “on” position while I was man-handling a corpse?  EW!

Maybe this is naive of me, but I truly feel gender-neutral when I’m working and as a result, I tend to think that’s how the officers view me as well: First and foremost, I’m the medical examiner.  All my other characteristics just kind of trail along behind.  I think they honestly forget that I’m packing those double X chromosomes until something happens… like… they catch an eye-full of leopard-print-clad booby.  Then my irrefutable female-ness marches right up and punches them in the junk.  Their faces go slack and I can almost see the realization take hold: “Oh my GOD, you’re a GIRL!”  They’re shocked, they’re stymied, and they revert to an earlier stage of social development; one in which they seem uncertain as to whether they should offer to carry my books… or kick me in the shins to convey their affection.

Still, as cringe-worthy as “The Leopard-Print-Bra” episode may have been.  I must admit that it’s not the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to me at work.  Hell, it’s not even the most embarrassing thing that’s happened this summer…  Shoot… just this week…

Well… suffice to say that I had another wretchedly uncouth situation while on duty the other day…

… and once again, it involved my breasts.

I’d love to say it wasn’t my fault, but it totally was. I was asking for it.  I challenged the hand of fate and fate, unreservedly, bitch-slapped me.

So… dressing one’s self for work as a medical examiner can be maddeningly tricky.  For one thing, the weather patterns in my locale are extremely variable.  It’s not uncommon to experience blistering sunshine, torrential rain and light snow flurries… all within the same 24 hours.  Similarly, the nature of the job itself is equally unpredictable.  It’s not like you can just assume you’re going to spend your entire work-day sitting in the same office behind the same desk.  I might end up in a walk-in freezer.  I might end up in a hot yoga studio.  I might be crawling through a ditch on the side of the road, or I might be parading through the local country club.  People die everywhere… including jail… People die in jail.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, it’s been all over the media- all the people who have died in police custody.

So I suppose it could be said that I should be prepared to go to jail at any moment… but I wasn’t… I REALLY wasn’t.

I had been at home in my pajamas when the call first came in.  It was early evening and I had doffed my office-appropriate wear and dove into the shower the second I got home.  The pager heralded the call and I was relieved to hear it was nothing terribly interesting: just some elderly guy who had been found deceased on the floor by his bed.  The neighbors noticed he hadn’t closed his garage door the night before and they called in a welfare check to the local police.  Realistically, the guy’s medical history was as long and complicated as a Kafka novel and he had every reason in the world to be dead… meaning there was no reason for me to come to the scene.  But the investigating officers were edgy due to the fact that the guy’s garage door had been open to anyone who cared to wander in.  And they thought the way he was twisted up in his blankets was “unnatural”.  So I indulged their intuition and went to assess the scene.

It was here that I made my utterly rookie blunder: I assumed.

It’s not that I assumed that there was nothing unusual about this guy’s death… I EXPECTED that there was nothing unusual about this guy’s death, but I still went to check out the scene, meaning my instincts were intact and I didn’t ASSUME it was a natural death and blow it off.  I ASSUMED that once I was done with that scene, I would be coming back home… which one should never assume.  One should ALWAYS ASSUME that it’s going to get really hot, and it’s going to get really cold. Everything is a homicide, everyone is going to get an autopsy. An airplane carrying 300 passengers is always going to crash down in your jurisdiction 20 minutes before you go off shift….  you are never going to see your home EVER AGAIN, you are never going to have access to food or water EVER AGAIN.  You will be wearing the clothes currently on your back FOREVER.

Every medical examiner should assume all of these things during every shift… and they might be prepared for roughly half of what can (and will) happen.

In my case, I left home for this simple little-old-man-dead-in-bed scene wearing what I can only describe as… inappropriate under-garments.  It was the tail end of a scorching summer day and I really didn’t feel like getting dressed again.  It’s as simple as that.  Re-building an appropriate work out-fit would have involved layering up with a bra that included cups, under-wires, hooks and bands of elastic.  That glorious item would have to be followed by an undershirt, then the requisite button-down collared oxford… and I just didn’t fucking FEEL like it…  not simply to take a peek at some dude who bought the farm in his sleep and then rolled out of bed.  I had no doubt that the dead guy’s house was going to be a giant sweat-box (Seriously, elderly people keep their homes as hot as blazes… even in the summer.  Something abut how old age completely screws the thermo-regulatory centers in the human brain) and the notion of getting all that clothing back on sounded more tedious than a 3rd grade production of Macbeth.

So I didn’t…instead I put on this light, nylon “Bralette”, (which is what I think they call them in the catalogs these days) covered it with the afore mentioned button-down and called it good.  After all, it was just a quick scene assessment, right? In and out and home before the sun oozed below the horizon and the night’s chill seeped in.

A word about “bralettes”.  I’m not sure why they exist.  They’re really the most dysfunctional piece of clothing I’ve ever come across.  I suppose they come close to being a bra in that they’re sort of a nylon undergarment that sits against your skin, but they don’t really offer any support.  Similarly, they are nearly a shirt in that they have a neck-line and the hem extends to the mid-torso, but other than that they don’t provide any coverage and they wouldn’t pass for actual clothing anywhere but at Burning Man… so there you have it.  A bralette is kind of like a crappy friend:  fun to hang out with at Burning Man, but when you need actual coverage and support, they’re not good for anything.  What made me think that wearing this crappy friend to work was a good idea?  I have no clue… I was just convinced I wouldn’t be wearing it long.

As predicted, the old man’s house was a sauna and his death was nothing remarkable from an investigative standpoint.  I was congratulating myself for being able to knock out the scene investigation before sundown when the pager went off again.  This time it was nothing simple or easy.  Some dude had died in jail.

Jail deaths are a lot like officer-involved shootings.  Everybody freaks the fuck out.  With the scrutiny on police brutality, excessive force and deaths in custody, whenever anyone dies in jail it has the same effect as dashing through a crowded room, screaming that you’ve got ebola… initially no one is really sure what to do, they just know they don’t want any of it getting on THEM.

The response is dramatic and time is of the essence.  The jail goes into complete lock-down. The officers all have to report to their superiors. Everyone calls their union reps, then the district attorney… THEN the “major crimes” squad.  Every inmate, shoelace, fork and bean gets counted and an army of investigators converges on the jail, including yours-truly.

I was there… in my “bralette”.

Had I been thinking a bit more clearly, I would have run by my house and changed, but home was actually in the opposite direction from the jail.  And I’m not too proud to admit that when I heard I was going to a jail death, I joined in the time honored tradition of freaking the fuck out. Of course, a bunch of investigators freaking the fuck out doesn’t involve, screaming and gnashing of teeth, but rather a lot of people getting really quiet as they think about everything they have to do and what order in which they should do it all.  At least that’s what I was doing… trying to remember and prioritize every minute task involved in a case where the public outcry would be, undoubtedly, swift and deafening… which means I wasn’t thinking about my underwear.

Until I was.

I bailed on the old man’s house and rocketed across town to the jail where I was met by a couple of crime scene techs, three detectives and the law enforcement union rep.  As we entered the jail, I couldn’t help but note that it was… a bit nippy in there.  Hell, it was downright COLD.  And suddenly, I felt the goosebumps tighten on my arm… followed by the insidious crawl of chilled nerve fibers on my neck, back and… breasts.  I glanced down…

“Hi!” my nipples shouted up at me.  “Here we are!”

“ACK! Oh my GOD!” I replied.  “What the hell? What are you guys doing OUT!”

“What?” my nipples asked.  “It’s cold in here, we always come out when it’s cold. What’s your problem?”

“What’s my problem? Are you kidding me? I’m WORKING… in JAIL!!  You guys can’t do this when I’m working!”

“Well, that’s not OUR problem,” they shrugged nonchalantly.  “YOU’RE the one who covered us up with this stupid ‘bralette’.  Serves you right.”

“Oh Jesus.  Please please PLEASE settle down.  Don’t do this to me. I’ll DIE of embarrassment and then there won’t be anyone to investigate my death because I’m the only one on shift.”

“Tough tittsies,” my nipples leered. “You made your choice, we’re OUT and we wanna see what’s going on.”

Of course, this conversation wasn’t audible… at least I don’t think it was.  It’s simply the dialogue that flashed through my mind when I glanced down and realized my nipples were harder than two diamonds in an ice-storm…. and they were clearly visible through the flimsy stretched material of my “bralette” and white oxford.

I was mortified.

Like I said, I tend to feel fairly gender-less when I’m working.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m almost always OBVIOUSLY the only woman at the scene of a death.  It’s a fact I try to downplay as much as possible because, let’s face it, in a male-dominated work-place, women get a bum rap and tend to be something of a target. It’s hard to be taken seriously. Don’t believe me?  Check out the movie Silence of the Lambs, or North Country.  It’s a thing.  And downplaying my gender as well as being taken seriously is difficult when my nipples enter a room three minutes before I do.

My law-enforcement colleagues aside, I was in jail… a MEN’S jail… where the men don’t really have a damn thing to do but look out their cell windows and heckle the shit out of anyone who walks by. As most of the jail staff tends to be men, the rare glimpse of a woman in the jail turns up the typical inmate-shit-talking to a deafening degree.  Back when I was a paramedic and I had to pick up patients who were inmates, I was treated to a wide array of speeches wherein the convicts described everything they’d like to do to my “skinny-blonde-bitch-ass”.  It was an intimidation tactic.  The inmates were bored and looking to entertain themselves and achieve some kind of notoriety for being the guy who made the paramedic woman blush… or flinch… or cry… whatever.  It was all easy enough to blow off then… but it wouldn’t be so easy to keep my composure when my nipples were smiling and waving at passers-by like they were on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“So, are you ready to get going with this?”

I glanced up from my obnoxious nipples. “What?”

The lead detective cocked his head at my sudden and complete lack of focus.  “We’re gonna go interview the guard of the unit, are you ready?”

“uuuh, yeah, I’m good.”  I said, hastily grabbing the straps of my bags and camera at the shoulder, thereby making it look like I was supporting their weight, but in reality I was hoping to shield my chest with my forearms and elbows.

The prison administrator, a nervous little man who kept wiping his nose and saying things about “cooperation” and “procedure”, escorted us into the staff lunchroom where our prison guard and his union rep sat, waiting.  The detective seated himself at the table and I did so as well, careful to hunch forward to make it look like I was intent on this interview… thus artfully keeping my nipples just below the margin of the table.

“Spoilsport!” my nipples howled.  “We can’t see ANYTHING from here!”

“Shut up!” I snapped.  “This isn’t about you so just simmer down.”

“What?”

“Nothing…” I said to the watery-eyed guard, who looked like he weighed about 78 pounds, soaking wet, and probably lived in his mom’s basement. “Please, tell me about today’s events in your own words…”

The evening wore on like that.  And let me just say, you really don’t think about how exhausting it is to wear inappropriate clothing, until you spend an entire evening trying to artfully disguise the fact that you seem to be smuggling coffee-beans into prison, two at a time.  I spent no less than 6 hours walking around that jail with my arms crossed over my chest- giving some people the impression that I was bossy and aloof… or I had the camera poised just below my chin, as though I expected a gaggle of celebrities to wander through the prison at any moment… OR I had my hands up at my shoulders, offering my poor shoulders some extra support as I lugged all of my gear around by wedging my hands under the straps and strategically positioning my hands round-about mid-chest level.

“Mmph! Thifff mif tho umfrm!” My nipples whined from under the stifling press of my hands and arms.  I’m not sure what they were trying to say.  I didn’t care, As far as I’m concerned, they’re both total assholes.

I’m not sure if anyone noticed, I have no idea if the police and guards were just being polite and declining to just blatantly stare at my ginning nipples… but not one of the prison inmates made a single peep, and I doubt they would have held back if given an opportunity to draw attention to my breasts.

So I guess that’s another one chalked up to experience.  I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, I’m proud of the fact that I never make the same mistake twice.  Still, it’s a smae there are so many mistakes to make just once.  I think I’ve made all of them and now I’m just inventing more.

But let me tell you… when and if my co-workers find the bullet-proof, underwired, triple-hooked, elastic banded bra I stowed away in the glove compartment of our work-truck, I will refuse to remove it from the truck and take it home.  “Believe me, you guys… ” I’ll tell them. “It’s essential equipment. Because our job is hard… as hard as chilly nipples.  And jail is a cold, cold place.”

The Other Stuff

The other day, I was riding my motorcycle and my rear tire blew out…

…which was terrifying, but not so terrifying that I didn’t go ahead and limp my poor bike to my original destination… which was my trapeze class. After all… TRAPEZE. And there’s no reason why a near-death event should interfere with my training schedule. I’ve been getting SOOOO close to a double front hip-circle, it seemed a waste of a trip downtown to just give up and park my bike by the curb when I was only a mile or so from the aerial studio. I think my dead rear tire would have wanted me to go on… to be happy… to nail my double front hip circle. It’s summer anyway, and there was plenty of daylight left after class for me to have the requisite “I’m-20-miles-from-home-and-my-motorcycle-is-DOA”-meltdown.

This was how I found out that:

a) my AAA membership covers motorcycle towing

and

b) one of my trapeze classmates is a motorcycle mechanic who has lots of spare tires in his garage, and he had just mail ordered this weird hinged-metal lever thingie that squeezes motorcycle tires off their mounts. (Kewpie doll for anyone who knows what the hell I’m talking about, because I have no idea what that device would be called)

Anyway, my friend told me to have my bike towed to his house and he would change out my tragically shredded rear tire for a “gently used” one that would at least get me home. Which was how I found myself sitting in the front seat of a tow-truck, talking about death.

The guy that AAA sent to my rescue with his flat-bed-trailer-tow-truck was a talker. And I think he was initially surprised to find out that I was not. I imagine most of his clients, pardon the stereotype but especially women, probably babble endlessly about their tale of vehicular woe once they’re in his passenger seat. But I wasn’t feeling particularly verbose. I was actually mentally analyzing some of my trapeze techniques while at the same time wondering if it signified some profound disconnect with reality that I was more concerned with getting to class than I was with safely operating a two-wheeled motor vehicle (Okay… so that day, it was one wheeled… or one-and-a-half-wheeled) that, on it’s best day, still kills roughly 26 times more people than cars.(Statistic courtesy of the US Department of Transportation in 2013)

The tow-truck driver, clearly baffled by my lack of chit-chat, asked that fateful question: “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a medical examiner for Oswald County.”

He absorbed that answer for a second

“So… what does that mean?”

I went with my I-don’t-feel-like-explaining-it answer: “It means all dead people, all the time.”

And he was off.

He talked about how his mom was in the hospital and likely wouldn’t last through the end of the month. He talked about the death of his father… and then he talked about how certain smells evoke memories of his past lives… and he did so with a you-know-what-I-mean attitude which indicated that he assumed that I, of course, believe in past lives along with the rest of the general populace… like, of course I used to be an 18th century Irish potato farmer… weren’t you?

(Just for the record, I don’t NOT believe in past lives… to read more on the faith and mysticism issue, please observe the previous blog-post: “Why not?”)

Then he started asking me about my job. He asked me to describe it, which is kind of like asking someone to describe every flower in the rain-forest. There’s too much. In fact, there’s so much that it’s difficult to even describe how indescribably diverse my job duties are. I admit, I gave him a half-assed answer. I just didn’t feel like talking. But the truth is, this past few weeks has been a kaleidoscope of wacky job duties that I kind of feel need to be shared. So, in addition to my more prevalent job duties of investigating deaths, writing case files and schlupping corpses from place to place- this is the other stuff I do when I’m getting paid:

1) The “Is this guy dead?” question

I don’t mind these calls at all. They’re actually my favorites because so far, they’ve all had happy endings. People call me up and tell me that they’ve lost touch with a friend or a relative whose lifestyle is… shall we say… a bit risky. Perhaps they’re homeless. Perhaps they tend to drop out of contact for extended periods of time, then reappear and admit that they were in a commune doing LOTS of drugs. Perhaps they ride to trapeze class on motorcycles with flat rear-tires. Whatever.

Anyway, I get these calls and I comb through our county case files. Then I go into the state death certificate registry and check for the name of the party in question. Then I get to call back the inquiring person and give them good news! Their brother, friend, cousin, etc etc. has not turned up dead in the state of Maine! Congratulations! They’re relieved and they thank me with real appreciation… not the wooden, hollow-voiced, mechanical thank-yous that I get from people after I’ve told them that their husband’s death was ruled a suicide or that their son’s blood alcohol was astronomically high when he killed 6 people in a highway wreck. Those people say “Thank you” with distracted automaticity- the way you thank someone who tells you your loan application was rejected… the way I thanked the doctor who called me and told me I had cancer. I never know what to say back to those people… “You’re welcome” just makes me feel like an asshole who’s rubbing it in.

But these folks… they’re thrilled to hear from me. They thank me like I just slipped them the key to Heaven’s back door. I could go on and tell them that it’s entirely possible that the object of their concern actually IS dead and their body just hasn’t been found yet… or that we’re located really close to the state border and there’s a good chance this person managed to meander over the state line before buying the farm…. but it’s so rare that I actually get to give people good news, I try not to ruin it.

I have yet to get one of these calls and have to report that the hunted individual is, in fact, deceased.

Knock on wood.

2) The OTHER “Is this guy dead?” question

So, this was kind of a new one today. I received a call from a triage nurse at a doctor’s office. She sounded really nervous on the voice message… and even more nervous when I called her back… like the kind of nervous someone might be if they believed they were knocking on the door of the house from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. It’s okay, I’m used to it.

“So… this is kind of weird question…” she said hesitantly.

“No it’s not.” I thought to myself. “Go ahead, I dare you… Surprise me.”

“This gentleman called today to make an appointment. He said his name was Conrad Earl Miller* and he gave his date of birth and his social security number. He said that he had just been seen for a broken wrist at the Oswald General ER and he needed to follow up with us…” he voice trailed off.

“Okay…?” I prompted her on.

“Well… Conrad Earl Miller is dead. Two years ago we received word that he was dead and we made note of it in his chart. I was just checking with you to confirm that he really is dead.”

“Huh….”

So I pulled up both the case file and the death certificate and verified that Conrad Earl Miller, with a birth-date, social security number and address that matched this mysterious caller, was indeed dead. Mr. Miller was a Native American war veteran with a history of schizophrenia who hanged himself in his tool shed in 2013. And yet, apparently, Mr Miller was also a calm, well spoken, articulate gentleman who was coming into their office on Monday to see about his broken wrist.

The nurse and I knocked around theories for a bit, but were admittedly at a loss as to why someone would steal the identity of a broke, crazy Indian with suicidal ideation (AND suicidal actualization). Of course, it would appear that stealing other people’s ethnicities is all the rage right now, so maybe this dude was just taking the Rachel Dolezal act a step further.

I ended up having to call Mr. Miller’s daughter (who confirmed that she had identified her dad at the funeral home in 2013 and there was NO DOUBT it was him in the casket) and letting her know someone out there was pretending to be her father. Then I told the nurse to call the vital records fraud department as well as the police to see if they wanted to nab this wacko when he came into her office. The nurse, who probably doesn’t see a lot of intrigue in her job, sounded really excited and told me she felt like she was on a detective show.

“I feel like an investigator!” she gushed.

“Ummm… yeah!” I tried to match her excitement- because I just didn’t have the heart to tell her what investigators really do. Case in point:

3) Don Quixote seeking lost princess

This isn’t my story. It’s really Herny’s.

Henry is my co-worker who has been investigating death for roughly as long as I’ve been alive. Henry has the inexplicable ability to be on shift whenever something really crazy happens. Keeping with this tradition, Henry was they guy who got the call when a woman’s skeleton was found in a field next to a trailer park.

It’s not as exciting as it sounds. This lady had been living with friends in the nearby trailer park, but had been trying to get into some kind of assistance program. In order to demonstrate her need for this assistance, the woman had temporarily moved out of the trailer and set up an outdoor camp in the field. She had a tent and a sleeping bag and all the typical homeless amenities. Unfortunately, this woman apparently misjudged how badly she needed assistance, especially medical assistance. She died out there… and no one noticed for a year until a grounds-keeping crew came through to do a yearly underbrush-clean-out.

You might think it strange that no one noticed when this woman went missing. But the fact is, it’s not at all difficult for someone to slip through the cracks… Given the right circumstances.  For starters, this woman, like the Native American in the last tale of woe, was schizophrenic. Which is to say… she kind of drifted through life in a colorful mash-up of hallucination and reality. The people that she lived with in the trailer park were elderly landlords that the woman had found through craigslist. They weren’t terribly invested in our decedent and they were so senile when she moved out, it’s likely they barely noticed she’d been there at all. When Henry interviewed them, they had almost no information about their tenant. They had a rough idea as to where she worked… a school of some sort… located in a parking lot… over by the Wentworth Family Grocery. They weren’t sure about family… but didn’t she say something about having been a Cherokee princess? Or maybe it was a Celtic princess… anyway, she had been royalty of some kind.

Henry was incensed. He was a man possessed.

It happens.

Since the body was more or less skeletonized, it was near impossible to make a definitive identification. The only hope was to find a doctor who might have x-rays showing some distinctive morphology to her thorax or cranial sinuses… an old fracture or something… Of course, to get such x-rays, we would have to FIND a doctor… and the elderly couple she had lived with could barely recall each other’s names, let alone the name of our decedent’s physician. The other option was to get DNA- which would be utterly useless without a known family member to compare it to…. so Henry was in a jam… no positive ID, no next of kin… just a pile of bones in a field and a pair of old geezers who answered every question with: “Eh?”

That’s how Henry, one of the most skilled, experienced, decent medicolegal death investigators I have ever known… ended up wandering the grocery store parking lots of Oswald County Maine… hunting for information on a lost princess.

Astonishingly, he managed to find the school where this woman worked (yes, she had access to the malleable minds of your children) and while they were no help in the whole doctor/dentist/next-of-kin search, they DID confirm that this woman had been in the habit of billing herself as the princess of virtually everything, everywhere… Lucky thing, the rest of us only get to be potato farmers.

These are the stories you don’t see on the Discovery Chanel.

and lastly-

4) “You know he would want this!”

Perhaps the worst duty I get sucked into performing is that of familial referee.

The other day I had this woman call and spend a half hour telling me how much she hated her step-mother. The complainant’s father had died, leaving his wife as next of kin. The decedent’s daughter from a previous marriage was inconsolable about this matter, as she and the decedent’s wife utterly despised one another and refused to play nice. It seemed the step mother was refusing to allow the daughter to be involved in the funeral arrangements or cremation plans. The daughter, thinking to side-step her step mother’s authority, called my office with plans to commandeer her father’s final disposition.

“I need you guys to get his ashes from the funeral home and give them to me so I can spread them over my mom’s grave. That way I can see both my parents at the same time when I go to the cemetery,”She commanded in a businesslike tone that indicated she’d spent a lot of time giving orders at places that had slogans like “Your way, right away”.

“Ma’am,” I told her, “Legally, your father’s wife is the next-of-kin. Which means it’s entirely her decision what happens to your father’s ashes. I’m sorry if there’s a rift there. But we can’t subvert her wishes.”

“But..” the daughter barked incredulously. “Then I would have to drive THREE HOURS to see my dad! And I would have to take a separate trip the opposite direction to see my mom! That’s not fair!”

I resisted the urge to tell her that, actually, she would be driving three hours to see a plaque on a wall since her Dad was no longer inhabiting the physical plane.

“Well… can’t you just take… like… half of his ashes and give them to me? She doesn’t have to know. Just so I can sprinkle them on my mom’s grave. My step-mom is EVIL! She’s an awful person! She’s not letting me be part of this at all!”

“I’m sorry. But we can’t do that. By state law, your dad’s wife is the legal executor for his estate and all decisions are in her hands. It’s not my choice. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

She tried again.

“Look!” she demanded accusingly. “You KNOW this is what he would have wanted… YOU KNOW IT!”

“What I KNOW,” I countered, “is that you are asking me to commit a CRIME. What you’re asking is AGAINST the LAW and I am not going to take part in it.”

“Well, I’M going to CALL a LAWYER!” I love how people say that as though they believe a lawyer is going to tell them that they can have whatever they want. Seriously, what the hell is it with folks? Are we so immersed in customer-service culture that we cannot FATHOM not getting our way in all matters?

“I encourage you to do so,” I told her. “I hope you do manage to get some of your dad’s ashes, but this isn’t something I can help you with.”

Last I heard she was trying to get the funeral home to steal her dads ashes out of the crematorium before her step mother could take them. She even had the nerve to tell the funeral home that I said it was okay. Fortunately, the funeral director is well versed in crazy so he wasn’t buying it either.

There are more duties…. eternally more snags to navigate… more problems to solve… more nut-jobs to talk to. But it’s late, I’m tired and I have no doubt there will be another princess to hunt for tomorrow.

Fortunately, Henry’s on shift.

Why Not

For the most part, I think it’s a good idea to avoid religious talk while one is at work.

Of course that’s just my opinion, and not one shared by my supervisor… who likes to tell me that he’s praying for me and that I should read my bible more. Specifically, he told me both of these things after I had a month in which LOTS of babies died while I was on shift. My angst was at it’s absolute zenith and I think he was trying to be supportive. But let’s face it, I wasn’t in the mood to Kum-Bi-Ya with anyone that month. In fact, if anything, being exposed to that much stark tragedy kind of had me telling God (or whoever is in charge of roll-call in heaven) that he could suck a big fat one and it would be great if he could give the human race a break for a few weeks.

I have to admit, it makes me a little uncomfortable when my boss says these things because he’s my boss and I have to wonder if I’d get my yearly raise if I told him that I’m a supporter of gay marriage and I’m pro-choice. But then again, I kind of have to blame myself. After all, I’m the one who once mentioned to him that I grew up in an intensely Christian household… which apparently made him think that I was down with intense Christians… and I am… mostly… down with them…I can quote the bible like a MoFo, I fluently speak Evangelical and when someone I love is met with profound adversity, I have to suppress the urge to deliver a casserole to their front door.

But all that said, I have to admit to really being down with pretty much any belief system. I mean… I have to be familiar with and at least marginally amenable to virtually EVERY form of spirituality in this job. It’s one of those bizarre professions in which it’s virtually impossible to avoid religion. I deal with death…. perhaps the biggest metaphysical conundrum we, as a species, face.

On a basic level, I generally have to know SOMETHING about other cultures’ beliefs and customs regarding death… or I have to at least be able to not look horrified or incredulous when people talk to me about what they hold to be true about the passing of their loved ones… because they do talk to me. People tell me all kinds of things. They DO all kinds of things… the expect ME to do all kind of things. And, to some extent, I have to play along.

-I’ve had one guy paint a giant red triangle on his head and insist on dancing around his father’s corpse while waving a small bunch of burning twigs and occasionally ringing a bell.

-I had one family call me a few dozen times to make sure that the media hadn’t come snooping around looking for information on their patriarch’s suicide. It seems, in their traditions, his suicide would have been cataclysmically shameful for the family and they would have been utterly ostracized by their community… so much so that their children would have been considered cursed and wouldn’t have been able to get married. Fortunately, despite what television shows would have you believe, suicides aren’t news unless you’re very rich or very famous. I told them this… about 26 times. And each time they made me promise not to breathe a word of the suicide to anyone… but… now I’m posting it on the internet… um…

-I’ve had Buddhist families completely lose their shit on me when I’ve told them that they are absolutely NOT allowed to keep a dead body in their house for 3 days. Namely because while the consciousness may not leave the body for three days, all kinds of OTHER things leave the body… all of which would be considered a bio-hazard and a public health risk. And while I respect their beliefs, I believe that the consciousness will have a much better time surrounded by other, like minded-individuals in a funeral home. They can all hang out there and talk about how they’re planning to spend their afterlife.

All of this is simply to say that I was hit with a new one last week.

A woman had called me to ask about her mother’s drowning. This happens a lot. People will sometimes call just because they want to talk about it. They don’t really have questions… or if they do, the questions are very inane and inconsequential. More than anything, they need to process… and it helps to process with someone who was involved in the case- someone who already knows all about it and isn’t particularly put off or “weirded-out” by death talk. 

 So this woman called to ask about her mother’s drowning- which wasn’t really a drowning- or rather, it wasn’t a SLAM-DUNK of a drowning.  the woman’s mother had Alzheimer’s and had wandered off and fallen face-down into a shallow creek. The water was low enough that if this woman had simply rolled over on to her back, she would have been able to breathe- leading me to believe that the woman had actually suffered some kind of terminal event… like a heart-attack or a stroke… fallen into the water and had been unconscious and therefore, unable to turn over.

 I’m not sure why the doctor ruled the death an accidental drowning since he didn’t bother to do an autopsy.  Personally, I was under the impression that the most certain way to rule on a drowning was to weigh someone’s lungs and see if their alveoli was completely water-logged. Oh well, that’s how the job works. The doctors kind of do what they want and we medical examiners have to pretend to understand and then explain it to families. I imagine it’s something like being the publicity agent for an eccentric celebrity. Your boss gets drunk on rubbing alcohol, puts a hub-cap on his head and does an interpretive dance in a busy intersection during rush-hour… and you have to sell it to the media as a conceptual art piece that scorns “car culture” and America’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Anyway, this woman called asking about the drowning- mostly because she didn’t like the idea of her mother drowning. I don’t blame her. It’s a terrifying way to die. So I spun my little tale about how I doubted the old woman had actually drowned and if she DID, she likely wasn’t conscious when it was happening, otherwise she would have rolled over and thereby saved herself from drowning.  In which case,  the loony old bird probably would have died of hypothermia… but hey, at least it wasn’t drowning. The daughter sounded deeply relieved by this interpretation of events and thanked me repeatedly for helping her understand why the death certificate was filled out the way it was.

(Side note- I can see how alleged psychics make a shit-ton of money, there are a lot of people out there who want resolution to a tragic death… and I imagine $4.99 for the first minute, then $.50 for each additional minute can really add up in a world so rife with unhappy deaths)

“Oh, that’s so much better than what I was thinking!” the daughter gasped to me as the weight of her mother’s frightening and probably painful death tumbled off her shoulders. “I mean, I just couldn’t BEAR the thought of her drowning! You know? I mean, what an awful way to go!”

“Yup,” I agreed. “Probably second only to being burned at the stake…”

I have no idea what the hell I was thinking. It just slipped out. I was a little distracted as I was talking with this woman and it was getting towards the end of my shift. My filter was a little cock-eyed and for some unholy reason, my conversational switch had inadvertently flipped from professional to casual. It might not sound like a huge faux-pas after the fact. But my comment was in exceedingly poor taste and it could have been taken in any number of awful ways…. most of which would have resulted in an official complaint and yet another trip into my boss’s office for yet another lecture on not saying incredibly upsetting things to our decedent’s families. After all, it had been less than a month since I had been told that it was not appropriate to refer to someone who bled to death as being “a couple of quarts low”.

I babbled incoherently for a few moments, trying to find a way to back-track out of my comment. I believe I blubbered something about how I had just watched the latest episode of “Outlander” in which the heroine narrowly escapes being burned as a witch. Astonishingly, though, this woman laughed.

“Oh! It’s so funny that you say that!” She gushed to me, apparently giddy from the news that her mother quite possibly DIDN’T die in agony. “See, I do past life regressions… and I’ve done 6 witch burnings!”

“…” I said.

Followed by

“… You don’t say…”

Because what the hell else does one say to that? A parade of questions stampeded through my brain, but, miraculously, I had recovered my presence of mind enough to refrain from actually asking any of them.

But in case you’re curious, here are the greatest hits:

-So… were YOU burned as a witch 6 times? Because that’s some lousy luck if that’s the case.

-Do you mean you attended 6 witch burnings in your past lives?

-Um… do you mean 6 different people have come to you and they’ve all been burned as witches in past lives?

-Just out of curiosity, do you ever run across people who actively BURNED witches in past lives? Because that’s always been a point of contention with me an reincarnation. I’m not saying it’s not possible- but do you ever run across someone who was… just… a completely ignoble, anonymous douche? Because there are an awful lot of reincarnated Anne Boelyns and Cleopatras- but not so many potato farmers or slave owners

Seriously, what exactly do you say when someone tells you they’ve had 6 witch burnings?

Probably the same thing you say when someone tells you your spirit animal is a tiger,

or the same thing you say to someone who says they’ll pray for you.

It’s what I always say these days- if not out loud, then at least to myself.

“Why not?”

I grew up as an evangelical Christian, and I suppose I still hold a lot of those beliefs close to me… but who’s to say? I mean, really? Who’s to say? Only the people who have been there already…only the dead, and they’re not talking.

I was taught to avoid such questions. I was taught that my faith was the right one and there wasn’t room for anyone else in the afterlife. “Have faith!” they always told me “Have faith!” As though I could be scolded into my salvation. And I tried, but the truth is, I could never seem to achieve the certainty that my fellow Evangelical children could. Moreover, I always got the impression that to doubt was to sin… but how could I not? Honestly, it was as though my own DNA was in some way skewed toward agnosticism. Incertitude and back-talk came as naturally as breathing… much to the discomfort of Sunday School Teachers and pastors alike. I tried believing, but the truth is, I didn’t know. I don’t know. I may hope, I may wonder. I may seek… but I don’t know. And I don’t think YOU do either. I don’t believe it’s been given to the human mind to see clearly into death and then beyond it. And to quote “The Princess Bride“: “Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” ( At $4.99 for the first minute, and $.50 for each additional minute)

Besides, I think I’d be a terrible medical examiner if I had become the angelic little Christian everyone had tried so hard to mold. What good would I be at my job if, rather than listening in silence, I tried to convert everyone who demonstrated an alternate belief system? If I turned every death into a “ministry opportunity”? It might win me crowns in paradise, but it sure as hell wouldn’t pay the bills down here.

So… reincarnation?

72 virgins?

Hauntings?

Valhalla?

Purgatory?

Heaven?

Who knows?

You don’t say.

Why not?

Tell me all about it, I’ve got time.