Regarding Henry

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

You Know You’re a Medical Examiner When… ACT III

Sadly, I didn’t have time to stay with my eye-doctor and further explain the state of my pants because almost immediately after that awkward little conversation, I was dispatched to a baby-death.


Baby deaths are always horrible. It seems stupidly redundant to say so, but I cannot adequately describe the misery and pain experienced by everyone involved. Obviously, there’s the devastation, and guilt on the part of the family. But the fact that the death absolutely MUST be exhaustively investigated adds a whole extra layer of misery to perhaps the most horrific situation in the human experience.


The death was that of a little boy named Joseph. He was about 6 months old. The details aren’t important, it was just pure, undiluted anguish. As is always the case with baby-deaths, Joseph had to get an autopsy- no questions about it. I was just in the process of explaining that inevitability to Joseph’s mother when my pager went off, announcing that I had yet another scene holding where officers requested the medical examiner. Excusing myself from baby-Joseph’s family, I stepped out into the backyard and called the flashing number on my pager.


I was greeted by one of the county detective sergeants… and my heart sank. The fact that there was a detective involved at all meant that I was in for a serious fiasco… but here I had the detective sergeant calling me from the scene of a death. Something terrible was on the horizon.


“So… we’ve had a real mess going on up here…” he began. “This dude shot his wife, then barricaded himself into the house with her. We got here and got her out, she’s at the hospital. But the perp wouldn’t budge. We tried to gas him out with some smoke canisters, but he ended up lighting the house on fire and then shooting himself. The house is completely burned out and we have a charred corpse. When can you get here?


A fire death… GREAT! Fire deaths, like baby-deaths, are always, unconditionally autopsied. No question about it.


“Well… I’m tying things up with this baby-death here, but the thing is, I’m going to have this kid in the truck. I have to take him down to the office for an autopsy. If you’re ready for me to come and get this charred corpse right NOW, then I can be there in 30 minutes. But, just so you understand, I’ll be coming there straight from here so I’ll have a dead baby in the truck with me. If you guys are going to be fiddling around with your scene investigation I won’t come to you until later. I’ll take the baby to the office and then catch up with you afterward, but there is absolutely NO WAY that I am going to race up there and then end up sitting on-scene for 11 hours with a dead baby in the truck while you pick this guy’s house apart.”


I meant it. I knew what the likely story was here. Chances were, they had just confirmed that the guy was dead and before anyone put much thought into it, they said to themselves and each other, “Hey, there’s a dead body here! That means we need the medical examiner!” Then they called for me without stopping to consider that they had a TON of crime scene investigation work in front of them before anyone (including me) could so much as breathe on the body. In this scenario, I would end up dashing to the scene and then sitting there for an eternity, waiting for them to get all their fingerprints and trace evidence and photos and footprints and blah blah blah. One time I was stuck on the scene of a homicide for an entire day before the detectives and crime scene technicians realized how much work they really had in front of them. So they told me to come back the following morning. When I did, I sat on that scene for another 8 hours. No way in hell was I going to repeat THAT situation.


“Do you understand what I’m telling you,” I lowered my voice and spoke slowly, using what I affectionately refer to as, “The Dad Voice”

“If I come to your scene right now, I can only stay there for 30 minutes at most because I will have the slowly decomposing corpse of a 6 month old child in the truck with me. So gauge your answer very carefully.”


I think the whole “dead baby” thing finally hit home because the detective sergeant told me he’d ask the fire investigators what their time-line looked like and call me back.


A few minutes later, he confirmed that my instincts were right.


“The fire guys said they’ll be at it for a few hours before the body can go. So I guess go ahead and take the kid to the office and I’ll call you when this guy’s ready to move..”


Twenty minutes later Joseph and I were headed to the far southern edge of the county where the autopsy suite and morgue are found. I had the little guy wrapped in blankets and laying on the stretcher in the back of my truck, though putting babies in the back of the truck is a move with which I’ve never been comfortable. Children always look so small on the stretcher and it seems so harsh to put them there. Even though that body is the same as any other body- just a vacated flesh vehicle- still, I always feel weird doing it. Of course there’s no better option, really. Laying them across the passenger seat isn’t… appropriate. If I have to hit the brakes they could go flying. But I can’t put them on the floor of the truck because it’s… you know … the FLOOR OF A TRUCK. So babies go on the stretcher- the least of all evils.


I was about halfway to the office when my pager went off again. I let lose with a fountain of profanity as I pulled off to the side of the highway to see who else had a dead body for me. But to my surprise, it wasn’t a whole new death scene. The sergeant with the charred corpse was asking me to call him back right away. And he sounded downright sheepish when I did.


“Soooo… uh, yeah,” He mumbled when I called him back. “The fire investigators say the roof of the house is about to cave in and we need to get the dead guy out of there right now- I mean, like, RIGHT NOW. Where are you?”


“I’m on the side of the highway with this dead kid on my stretcher. Didn’t we already discuss this?”


Yeah, yeah,” I could hear the exhaustion in his voice.”I’m sorry. They just realized it. With the walls gone and all the support beams burned up, they’re afraid what’s left of the second floor is going to collapse on top of this guy. He has to move now.”


“Okay… it’s okay. Sorry for giving you a hard time, It’s just… I’ve been driving in the opposite direction from your scene so it’s going to take me at least 45 minutes to get there. But I’m turning around. I’ll haul ass and be there as soon as I can.”


“Thanks. Again, I’m really sorry. Um…” he stuttered for a moment. “Do you… uh… do you HAVE to bring the baby with you?”


On one hand, I couldn’t blame him. Dead infants make people very uncomfortable. The first time I sat in on a pediatric autopsy, I locked myself in my bathroom and cried for two hours. Even now, though I see deceased children of all ages all the time, the babies still spook me a bit. But the way this detective sergeant was talking, you’d think he expected me to show up with the kid strapped to the hood of the truck like a freshly slain deer.


“Dude, really?” I balked. “What do you want me to do, drop him off at a daycare?”


“No! No, I was just thinking a funeral home could hold on to him or something…”


“I’ll see you soon.” I said with deep finality.


I was at a fairly secluded spot there on the side of the road so I decided to go ahead and relocate Joseph from the stretcher in back to the passenger seat in the cab with me. As I did my best to tuck him into the seat, I told myself that I would just have to be really careful about my driving so as not to disturb him. And as I told myself this, I realized that I was telling him as well.


“Look, I know this isn’t ideal,” I said to the swaddled form as I secured the seat-belt around him and wedged a couple of blankets on to the seat for cushioning. ”But you’ll be okay up here and we’ll be back on our way to the morgue in no time.” I patted him on the back in a pointlessly reassuring manner and climbed back into the driver’s seat.


“Oh! I love this song!” I said to Joseph as we pulled back on the highway and the radio began pouring forth my new favorite tune. I went ahead and cranked the volume to sing along, figuring kids like singing. “Ugh,” I huffed as the song ended and I watched the sun slide closer to the horizon, signaling the fact that the day was long gone and I still hadn’t completed a single page of paperwork. “Can you believe the day I’ve had? What a freaking mess.” -careful to use the word “freaking” because I don’t cuss in front of children. “I mean, seriously… a fatal MVA, a baby-death and then a burned out corpse, I can’t even begin to comprehend the paperwork all of this is going to take.” I glanced over at Joseph and was immediately overcome with guilt for complaining to him like I was, since his day had clearly been much worse than mine.


“Look, I’m really sorry for your family,” I told him. “They seem like nice people, and I know they didn’t DO anything to hurt you, but we always have to do this… just to be on the safe side- you know?”


We drove a little further.


“Anyway, we’re going to go see the Sheriff’s deputies, you’ll like them. They’re good people. And I promise we won’t be there long. I’ve made THAT absolutely clear.”


Soon enough, Joseph and I arrived at the scene of the house-fire, and as described to me by the detective sergeant, the structure was barely a blackened, smoking scaffolding. I slowed my approach and skirted the multitudes of police cars and fire trucks that clogged the dirt road to the driveway. A couple of deputies waved as I pulled closer and one in particular, Deputy Getz (with whom I’m good friends) scampered up to my passenger side window to say hello.


“Hey Grace,” he grinned as I lowered the window and he leaned in. “I’ve been listening to all your death calls over the radio. HOLY SHIT you’ve had a busy day! You here to collect our guy?”


“Sure am” I grinned back. “What kind of trouble have you guys gotten into up here?”


“Hey man, it wasn’t our fault,” he shrugged. “This guy lit the fire himself- he kept the dog in there with him, too.”


“Oh my GOD! Seriously? He killed the dog in the fire? That is SO messed up!”


Getz nodded emphatically. “What a fuckin’ douche-bag, huh? I’d shoot him myself if he weren’t already dead.” Like most law enforcement and emergency personnel, both Getz and I are pretty much desensitized to the atrocities that human beings commit against one another, but there’s no forgiveness for someone who does that shit to a dog…. or a child… speaking of… “Ummm, what’s that?” Getz gestured to the ubiquitous, blanketed lump in the passenger seat.


“Oh, that? That’s Joseph. He’s had kind of a rough day too so we’re keeping each other company.”


Getz stared at me for a second, obviously expecting me to laugh and tell him that I was kidding, but I wasn’t, so I didn’t.


“Ummm, are you serious,” he backed away from the window. “That’s the baby from your last call?”


“Well… yeah” I said. Of course it was the baby, what else would it be? Just then, another officer approached to say hello and as she got closer, Getz grabbed her arm.


“Hey… don’t,” he warned the officer. “She’s got a dead baby in her front seat.”


-And suddenly, I realized that maybe it actually was a little bit west of normal to be discovered driving around with a deceased infant strapped into your passenger seat. I mean, wasn’t like I did it all the time or anything. Flustered, I groped for the briefest explanation possible as to why the baby was right there instead of on the stretcher, but just then I was spotted by the lead fire investigator and he waved me forward into the driveway to collect my decedent.


I smiled a half-hearted goodbye to Getz and the other officer, not liking the squeamish grimace they both wore as they attempted to smile and wave back. Oh well, I thought. It’s not like I’m running for prom queen of the county.


“Stay here, I’ll be right back.” I told Joseph as I hopped out of the truck and pulled the stretcher out of the back. The fire-fighters and I suited up in big plastic suits and booties that covered our shoes (in order to avoid contamination of the trace evidence) and we hoisted the our dead guy out of the smoldering muck of his ruined house, wrapped him in plastic and loaded him into my truck… or at least we did so with most of him. His feet were completely burned away and a couple of his fingers disintegrated as soon as we touched him. The detective sergeant asked me if I could determine whether or not our dead guy had shot himself in the head before the fire took him- An incredibly unrealistic request seeing as how the cranial structure was so ravaged by the flames you really couldn’t even tell where his face was supposed to be. I departed, telling the gathered company that an autopsy would take place the following day and the only thing that would confirm a gunshot wound to the head was an x-ray of the corpse. As I pulled out of the driveway and back on to the road. I patted Joseph again to reassure myself that he was still there, and noted Deputy Getz nearby, avoiding eye-contact with me as I turned back in the direction of the morgue and drove away.


“I swear, Joseph, Those guys can be such babies.” I muttered. “I mean, you’d think they’d be a little bit more… I don’t know… robust when it comes to death.”


No one else called that night. All the same, by the time we finally made it to the morgue,  darkness had curled up and settled in around the county. I unloaded my charges as cool gusts of  night’s breeze washed away the day’s heat. I logged the two bodies into our database, first the fire-guy, followed by little Joseph. He looked so small on the huge metal gurney upon which we place our dead. I felt the twinge of a sour note ringing in my head as I wheeled Joseph into the cooler with the other bodies. It didn’t feel right to leave him in there, he was a baby. He didn’t belong in there with those grown adults, all fixed in their death pose by rigor-mortis and covered with white sheets. Under the flickering florescents, they looked as though they had all been writhing in distress and paused when they heard me walk in. I began to wheel Joseph’s gurney into the free-space next to Fire-guy when I stopped, overcome with the distastefulness of it all. I just couldn’t do it… after all, that guy had killed a dog.


No, I didn’t put Joseph back into my front seat and drive home.


Instead, I wheeled him back out of the cooler and took a look at the chalkboard where the names and locations of the bodies were listed. “Let’s see…” I murmured under my breath. “A 28 year-old female- suspected overdose… no. A 42 year-old GSW to the chest… no…”


Until I figured it out.


It took some rearranging and if anyone else had been in the morgue that night, they would have thought I was being ridiculous. All the same..


“Here you go Joseph,” I said to him as I wheeled him into his new spot in the cooler: up against the wall on one side, and a 60 year-old gentleman who had died of a suspected heart attack on the other. “Charles, this is Joseph. Joseph, this is Charles. He’s going to look out for you until tomorrow. Charles, you’ve got some bad-seeds in here tonight. But I trust you can handle it.”


And with that, I turned out the lights on the bodies… on my day… and closed the door.


You know you’re a medical examiner when… I’m not sure… when you think it’s weird that other people think you’re weird for having a dead baby in your front seat? When you talk to dead people more easily than you talk to living people? When you do things for the dead that don’t really matter… except that they matter?


I don’t know. I guess my brain has been re-wired in a way that doesn’t make much sense. The reasons that I do somethings doesn’t seem to have any connection to anyone else’s reality. A lot of people who know a lot about psychology and coping mechanisms and PTSD would probably have a lot to say about it. But I’m not interested.

I’m a medical examiner…

and the living are lousy conversationalists.