Letters From the Front: A Field Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? They were here?” I asked.

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

“They didn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I was confused. “So?”

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

“Subject your crew to what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, we have protective gear for that.”

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

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

“Wait, what?”

“I don’t want to subject my crew…”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWW

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

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

not for human consumption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh shit… there goes the planet.”

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

I promise.

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.