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.

Letters From the Front: Waiting

So much for the plan of blogging every day of this international filet-o-fuck known as the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d like to say that I’ve spent the time valiantly cruising from one death scene to the next, staring intently into the deceased patient’s face and shaking my head as I say something terribly poignant like: “It’s claimed another soul! Damn this disease! We must prevail! We must stand fast in the face of such adversity! The burden of civilization falls to us!”

You know, something like Dustin Hoffman from “Outbreak”

“I’d like to thank the academy…”

But let’s be honest. I’ve been playing “Fishdom” on my phone, eating leftover Easter candy and showering roughly every 9 days. I don’t know how everyone else’s pandemic is turning out, but mine is looking less like “Outbreak” and more like “Groundhog Day”.

“Hey asshole, why aren’t you wearing a mask?”

Seriously, the days are seeping together like stains- a mess that just gets weirder and weirder. And it all has this vague, parasomnia-quality. Like, I keep expecting all of us to wake up from this sweaty, fevered hallucination. We’ll all glance around us as we rub the goop from our eyes and say, “Woah, I had the strangest dream… and YOU were there… and YOU were there… except we only spoke over FaceTime and Zoom and The Great and Powerful OZ looked remarkably like a stale Cheeto.”

Until then, there are clever memes about toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Everyone is making jokes about the sad state of their personal hygiene. Most of my friends are leading at-home work-outs in their living room or posting videos of themselves playing the guitar and asking for cyber tips via Venmo. Every small business that has ever gotten my email address has come around, passing the virtual bucket in the name of preserving mom-and-pop culture. And I’m just now noticing that my toenails look like something you’d see on a 3000 year old mummy.

Jesus, I need a god damned pedicure…

It’s almost funny.

Except it’s not. Like so many other things in life- and death- the thin gloss of humor really doesn’t do much to obscure how truly fucking disturbing all of this is. But not because of the disease, rather the way everyone has reacted to it.

First of all, I’d like to say that I haven’t seen a single COVID death. Not one. I know everyone thought there would be bodies, littering the streets like it was the fucking dark ages or Mardi Gras or something. But that’s not the case. At least not in my town. Although my jurisdiction has a known body count of 55, I haven’t laid eyes on a one of them.

But that’s not to say that COVID hasn’t considerably complicated my job.

First of all, there’s the fire department… there’s always the fire department.

They continue to utterly baffle all of us with their inexplicable logic and propensity to do whatever they fuck they want.

For starters, they are constantly diagnosing dead people with COVID-19. They arrive at the scene of a death, and although they have been told that their job in this environment is to simply pronounce the person dead, that doesn’t stop them from popping off their uninformed theories like fire-crackers and then leaving everyone else to deal with the aftermath of their behavior. The concept of object permanence is a complete mystery- they just can’t seem to grasp that everyone else continues to exist despite their departure. And they can’t fathom the possibility that they’ve done anything wrong or that they’ve left a mess that someone else has to clean up. American Society has been thoroughly trained into believing everything that the fire department says, and that belief is so entrenched in our culture that the firemen, themselves, believe it too. And never is this more apparent than when one of our local heroes proclaims that a deceased person clearly died of the coronavirus (when they didn’t). The medical examiner’s office starts getting calls from the deceased’s terrified family members who are all suddenly certain of their own impending demise. Then we get calls from panicky funeral directors whose employees are refusing to touch the body. Then the family calls back saying that the funeral home won’t let any of them come to view the body for fear of infection or transmission. Then the whole neighborhood starts calling because they saw the fire-department suit up like they were going to the goddamned moon to enter the dead person’s house… then the fire department came back out again, saying the death was due to the virus. A single offhanded comment can, literally, create hours of completely unnecessary work for the on-duty medical examiner: soothing and explaining and requesting and persuading- all in an effort to convince the public that even though the fire department “said so”. The stiff in question was not exhibiting COVID symptoms, nor were they at any significant risk for infection.

Of course that’s just one angle. There’s another problem with supply and demand- yet another issue of which the fire department is completely ignorant. You may have heard there’s a PPE (personal protective equipment) shortage: Not enough masks, not enough gloves, not enough ANYTHING. The concept of “not enough” is utterly foreign to the FD because they are, historically, so well funded that they’ve never had to go without ANYTHING. Well, the other day I was on the phone with a police officer who casually informed me that the fire department had rolled up on the scene of the death and started passing out surgical masks to EVERYONE there- I mean the decedent’s family, the neighbors, the people out walking their dogs…

Essential personnel

Now, let’s remember that right now- there is a NATIONAL SHORTAGE. I have some friends who are Emergency Room doctors. They are being issued one mask per DAY. And here we have the good-ol’ FD showering people with PPE like it’s fucking confetti at a 4th of July parade. Then, the same day, I had a fireman at a scene ask me to re-supply him with Tyvekk suits… I stared at him in disbelief. We are perpetually the underfunded and forgotten step-child of Health and Human Services. If the medical examiner’s office has supplies, it’s because we stole them from another department in the middle of the night. Having the fire department ask us for anything is like the goddamned CEO of Amazon asking a homeless person for spare change. Seriously.

“Excuse me, young lady, but do you suppose we could have your last Tyvekk suit? We used all ours as tablecloths at our last chili cook-off.”

Apart from these new-and-improved COVID-related blunders, they’re still up to their usual idiocy. On my last shift I had a woman who allegedly commit suicide by hanging herself in her garage. The fire department cut her down before either law-enforcement or I could get there. Then, upon realizing that she was actually dead, figured that the best way to preserve the scene and all the associated evidence was to string her back up in a rough approximation of how they found her. Meaning that if it didn’t look like a homicide before… it sure as fuck did now.

I could go on and on…

But the fact is, I get it. We’re all kind of losing our shit.

Whenever the police call me with a new death, we have this strange approximation of a debate as to what they’re supposed to do. While it’s their job to investigate deaths along with me, we’re not exactly sure how they’re supposed to do it. They tell me that their marching orders are to wear disposable scrubs and shoe covers and eye-protection and masks and gloves on the scene of a death, but then they’re not actually issued any of these items. Or they only have one of each item and they’re not sure they want to burn through their PPE on a death scene when they have a whole shift to go, no back-up supplies and anything could happen…

And that’s the real struggle… anything could happen.

I watched a movie recently in which one of the characters asks, “You know what’s the scariest part of a roller-coaster? It’s the waiting in line.”

I’m glad you’re not here to see this, Tom.

As Tom Petty astutely observed, “The Waiting is the Hardest Part…”

And I think that’s right. It’s not the fight for survival that’s eating all of us alive, it’s the waiting to fight for survival. When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was almost a relief compared to the previous 5 years of confused doctors, vague guesses and the bottomlessness of the question- what the hell was wrong with me? It was a relief to have the adversary dragged into the light where I could see it. At least now I knew what I was fighting.

Much the same way, here, at Health and Human Services, at the police department, at the fire department- we’re bracing for an impact that really seems to be taking it’s sweet fucking time getting here. We’re laser focused and efficient as a bullet when the shit hits the fan, but when we’re stuck waiting for the shit to get thrown at the fan in the first place, we lose our goddamned minds. We’re waiting for the virus to kick in the door of our county and start grabbing people by the throat. We’re waiting for the self-quarantine to boil over into domestic violence, assaults and overdoses. We’re waiting for the economic shut-down to detonate into riots and suicides. We know that the universe just threw a hand grenade into the crowded building known as earth, and now we’re just waiting for it to go off… Waiting… Waiting… Maybe it’s a dud? Maybe he forgot to pull the pin? Maybe the worst is over?

Maybe it hasn’t even started?

Or maybe it’s a gag… the biggest joke the universe ever played on the human race. Guess what? The disease isn’t half as scary as our bumbling buffoonery in reaction to it. I’m not half as scared of the coronavirus as I am of all the under-informed, untrained, paranoid lunatics who went running out and bought guns when the pandemic went down.

Either way, we’re going to have to wade into it and fight, regardless of how many latex gloves we’ve got between us. I just wish it would hurry up and reveal itself. I’m tired of wondering which direction the explosion is going to come from. Or if it’s coming at all…

So I guess that’s where we’re at this week, all gloved-up and nowhere to go…

Waiting to fight for survival…

In line for the roller-coaster.

Letters from the Front: Day 1

It’s a new reality.

Suddenly we’re all sitting in our homes, chewing on our fingernails as we watch the red dots spread out on the computer screen map like seeping bloodstains.

No one is attending school. No one is going to movies. No one is seeing concerts. No one is working out at the gym. No one is going to work…

…except for me.

(and the grocery store clerk at New Seasons)

I left for work today a luxurious 20 minutes later than usual because I knew there wouldn’t be any traffic. But as far as I can tell, it’s pretty much the only GOOD thing that’s happened as a result of this shit show.

That’s right, the medical examiner’s office is open with a vengeance. It is said that the only thing for certain in this life is death and taxes. And it’s entirely possible that taxes will be waived for the year as more and more clamor rises from the masses. No one can afford to pay their rent… let alone their taxes- so who knows. Taxes may be optional this year.

Power to the people!

The downside is, death is still a thing. As the panic surrounding the COVID pandemic really begins to pick up avalanche momentum, The medical examiner’s office is only one cubicle away from where the shit show is really on display- I’m not gonna lie, the Public Health people are having a much worse time than I am… so far. When I saw the county epidemiologist today, she told me that she’s been snorting No-Doze and it’s been 19 days since she had the time to take a shower.

The medical examiners office is doing ok, but we’re starting to feel the strain as well. It’s only a matter of time before the fatalities really start piling up. And I don’t just mean the folks who die of the virus. I’m talking about the people who freak out from the social isolation and anxiety and kill themselves. I’m talking about the families that are already hanging on by a very thin thread suddenly having to spend weeks quarantined together… all angry atoms vibrating together in an enclosed space, hovering on the edge of detonation. I’m talking about all those assholes who think it’s fucking anarchy out there and start driving around drunk- assuming the police have better things to do than pull them over. I’m talking about riots as people become more and more desperate, stupidly believing that the only thing standing between them and complete annihilation is a roll of fucking toilet paper.

It’s so maddening that all I can do is say the F-word…

Funeral homes

Day 1:

I arrive at work. I’m nervous. The magnitude of the corona virus hasn’t quite hit the ground yet, but we’re beginning to sense that it’s a much bigger problem than anyone thought. Businesses have started to close down. Most notably, my gym has closed down leaving me with an overabundance of nervous energy. I feel as edgy as a downed power-line, snapping and crackling on the pavement, daring anyone to come closer.

The first thing that happens is Henry tells me that a body arrived at a funeral home with “corona virus” written on it. I’m not altogether sure what he means.

“Was it like… a sticky note or something?” I ask him.

He doesn’t know, all he knows is that the funeral home employees are losing their minds with panic and don’t want to touch the body. Henry is talking about having to track down who the hell got the rumor started that the dead body was a COVID-19 victim. I shake my head in disbelief.

Then I get a call from the grandmother of one of my decedents from last shift. Specifically, it’s the grandmother of a dead baby. It was awful. This infant was found deceased in bed next to his mother. It’s a co-sleeping death- which is something I know no one wants to hear, but it’s true. Babies and parents shouldn’t sleep in the same beds and the repercussions of doing so are sometimes deadly.

But putting THAT debate aside for another day….

Then problem is, someone from the funeral home has called the family and told them that the baby tested positive for COVID-19. The funeral home is now refusing to let the devastated family come in and view their deceased child one last time. The funeral home is also refusing to touch the baby or proceed with any burial or cremation arrangements.

Then the grandmother tells me that the baby’s father (her son) had to tell his work that it is believed that his child died of COVID-19. His employer has freaked the fuck out and refused to let him come in to work until he can provide documentation verifying that he does NOT have COVID-19.

The grandmother is sobbing this whole story out and asking me why no one at our office told the family that the baby died of COVID. I do my best to tell the grandmother that no one mentioned this to them by virtue of the fact that it isn’t fucking true. The death had nothing to do with the corona virus and I have no clue where the funeral home got that idea. Nor can I imagine why they didn’t bother to confirm it with our office before they brutalized the family in this way. I tell her I will get to the bottom of it and I call the funeral home with the light of righteous indig-fucking-nation blazing in my eyes.

The funeral director tells me that he got the information from the transport crew that they hire to pick up bodies for them from the morgue. He claims that if there’s a problem, it’s not his fault, it’s the fault of the transport company. They’re the ones that said the baby had COVID. So I call the transport company… completely prepared to tear them limb from limb. However, the transport company swears they got the news from the morgue employee who released the body to them. So then I call the morgue, where the state morgue attendants claim that absolutely, under no circumstances did anyone tell anyone that this baby had COVID. In fact, the morgue folks are downright offended that I dare suggest such a thing.

Ultimately, I talk to the pathologist who did the autopsy. He informs me that recent guidelines mandate a COVID test for all pediatric deaths in the state. So the baby was tested for the corona virus and that test came back negative.

WTF?

I backtrack through the phone calls and graciously disperse this information to all involved parties, not one of whom is willing to admit that they’re the asshole that started the rumor that this kid had the corona virus. Ultimately I talk to the family and assure them that their home is not ground zero for the latest outbreak. The problem is, now there’s no help for the father who has been ordered to stay home from work. He can’t prove that he doesn’t have this illness because he can’t get a test. Right now, there aren’t enough tests available and the Health Authority isn’t willing to burn a test swab on someone who isn’t showing any symptoms and has no known contact with a verified Covid case.

So he’s screwed.

Then I get a call from the local hospital. It’s a nurse calling to report the death of a known COVID victim. It’s the first confirmed corona virus death in our county. It’s starting.

He doesn’t know what to do. But I can’t really help him. I tell him that the death isn’t reportable to our office since the decedent has been in the hospital for over 24 hours and the cause of death wasn’t a matter that required investigation. I tell him that the attending physician should have been briefed on which agencies to call and who to alert in this situation.

“Yeah,” he says. “The attending doc told me to call you.”

It’s not even 10 a.m. The day has barely started.

I’m still on shift for another 46 hours.

FUCK.

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.