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.