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 2

It could have been worse.

Day 1 was more or less uneventful aside from all the funeral home craziness. I had one dude jump off a 5-story parking garage (an unnervingly popular method of suicide) and an array of really uncomfortable phone calls… all of which kicked off with the previously blogged about situation wherein the funeral homes completely lost their shit in the face of crisis.

It’s fine.

On the one hand many of these phone calls weren’t anything unusual: mostly just folks asking questions about their loved one’s death. On the other hand, although these phone calls were “normal”, everyone that I spoke to had a panicky edge to their voice… more so than usual. The family of the suicidal jumper was downright hostile when I asked about the dead guy’s mental health history. And in another conversation in which a son was asking about the post-mortem changes he observed on his father’s body at the time of his funeral… well… the tone with which he asked these questions made me wonder if he suspected me of gleefully beating the shit out of his father’s corpse before we released him to a funeral home. I mean, decomposition isn’t pretty, but it certainly isn’t an intentional brutality that we medical examiners inflict on the deceased and their bereaved families. People die and then their bodies fall apart, it’s science, not a practical joke.

So what’s with the “HOW-DARE-YOU” tone?

I don’t know. It seemed to me like everyone I spoke to was significantly more on edge than usual- and seeing as how I regularly speak to people who are having the worst day of their lives- that’s really saying something.

Of course, in terms of being twitchy and unreasonable, one demographic definitely took the gold medal in the crazy olympics on day 2. They were so off-the-chain that they had me dropping the F-bomb all over the place.

That F-bomb being…

FIREMEN.

-DAY 2-

I awake at 0430 to the sound of the cell phone going off. Signaling someone has called our office number and the call went to voicemail. I pitch out of bed and drag myself out into the kitchen to call our voicemail. It’s a funeral home employee. He sounds confused and hesitant, like he’s not sure if he should be calling. I don’t blame him, I have something of a reputation for being a raging bitch when I’m woken up in the wee hours of the morning in order to deal with some inane problem that easily could have waited until I’m thoroughly caffeinated.

“Who daaares disuuuuurb my reeeeesssssst?!?!”

“Ummmm… Hi. This is Nate from *funeral home name omitted*. Can you tell me if Betsy Swanson (not her real name) is released from the scene? I just spoke to the family and they’re telling me that she’s been released and I need to come pick her up.”

I groan.

This is probably a hospice death and no one bothered to tell the funeral home. Hospice deaths don’t need to be reported to us as they don’t fall under medical examiner jurisdiction (except for a very few exceptions). But it should be pretty easy to deal with so I call Nate back and remind myself to be nice because if I raise my cortisol levels too high by bitching him out, I’ll never get back to sleep.

“Nate, this is the medical examiner,” I say, trying to clear the sludge of sleep from my brain. “What’s going on?”

“Hey, so I got a call from this family, asking me to come pick up a body… The name of the deceased is Betsy Swanson (not really) and I just need to know if she’s released.”

“Well,” I try to soften the edge from my voice, chances are Nate doesn’t want to be awake either and I don’t need to make it worse for both of us. “I don’t know anything about a Betsy Swanson (you get the idea) No one called me about any deaths tonight. Was she in hospice or something?”

“No. She wasn’t.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I asked the family. She wasn’t in hospice.”

“Is she at a SNF or something?” (A SNF is a “skilled nursing facility” and sometimes they forget to call on deaths because someone, somewhere perpetuated the rumor that residential medical facilities don’t have to notify us when someone dies.)

“No. She’s at a residence. The family called me. They said a medical crew had been there…”

“A medical crew was there?”

“Yeah, and the medical crew told them to call the funeral home. It sounded like they’re from another country or something.”

“The medical crew said WHAT?”

I can hear Nate shrinking away from his phone as though it’s going to spring out of his hand and devour him. It’s clear my confusion has taken an abrupt left turn into outrage. Nate scrambles to explain.

“The family told me that she’s got cancer or something. I have their name and address. And, yeah, they said a medical crew came to the house and then told them to call a funeral home and left.”

I copy down the information. I feel sorry for Nate. He’s obviously as baffled as I am by this story and he absolutely did the right thing by calling me. But that doesn’t mean he wanted to. I assure Nate that if a medical crew was at the house, I will get to the bottom of it soon enough. I’ll call dispatch and figure out who went to that address this morning and what, exactly, happened there.

When I call dispatch, they’re apparently training a new employee, because when I identify myself as the M.E. she refuses to pony up any information regarding the address Nate gave me.

“Look,” I tell her, not bothering to couch my irritation, “This is the MEDICAL EXAMINER my call sign is ******* (no, I’m not going to tell you what it is) I need to know who was called to this address and what happened there.”

“I can’t provide you with that information,” she recites mechanically, her voice beginning to waver slightly. “I can page the fire crew involved and ask them to call you.”

“Ok, I need to speak to your supervisor.” I don’t like pulling a move like that, but for the life of me, I cannot begin to comprehend what the big secret might be.

When I get the supervisor on the phone, she isn’t much more help. “Well… understand. We have no way of verifying who you are over the phone. So we can’t give you any particulars about this call-“

“Do you have a lot of people who call you at 4:30 in the morning, claiming to be the medical examiner and giving my call sign?”

She stutters for a second.

“I’ll have the fire crew call you.”

I have no idea how long it takes to send that page, but the fire crew doesn’t call me back for approximately 45 minutes- maybe because they have to turn off their night-light and do a round of pushups before they can interact with the public. When he does call, the interaction is short. I ask him if he was called to the afore mentioned address, and when he replies in the affirmative, I ask him to describe what happened.

“Well,” he says. “We were called for ‘shortness of breath’. When we got there, the family was from Algeria or something. Only a couple of them spoke English and their elderly mother was there. She was incoherent and having a hard time breathing. I mean, she really looked like she had been sick for a long time and was dying. Super skinny, jaundiced… you know. They said she’d been diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks back at St. Joseph’s. They asked us to put some oxygen on her but we told them that if we treated her in any way we would have to transport her. And they said they didn’t want that. So I just told them to call the funeral home when she was dead.”

“You told them to, ‘just call the funeral home when she was dead’.”

“Yes.”

“OK.” I do my best to keep my voice level and not begin oozing the profound level of blinding contempt and anger I’m feeling. “Did you call medical direction?” (Which is to say, did he discuss this whole situation with anyone further up his own professional food chain)

“No.”

I grit my teeth. “Was this woman on hospice?”

“No.”

Deep breath. “Did she have a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order?”

He hesitates. I can tell the reality of his faux pas is beginning to dawn on him. “… No.”

“Did anyone at the scene have medical power of attorney?”

He gulps. “No… I…” He stutters, he chokes and I give him a minute to blurt out whatever equivocation he’s brewing.

“So… here’s the deal,” I do my best to sound conciliatory, but I’m fucking pissed. Can I speak to the Lieutenant?”

“I am the Lieutenant.”

“OK, look. I’m not even going to address the whole patient care aspect of this situation, because that is not my area and I don’t know what your standards are for ‘patient abandonment’ or ‘professional negligence’ and so on. That’s not my wheelhouse. I DO, however, take serious issue with the fact that you released a person to a funeral home from a scene before they were even dead.”

“Well… I thought-“

“You do realize, Im assuming, that it’s AGAINST THE LAW for anyone to release a body from a scene except for the medical examiner. And that doesn’t even address the fact that this woman wasn’t even dead yet. And she had nothing resembling advanced directives that might explain or justify why you thought this was a reasonable thing to do.”

“I just thought-“

“I’d like the name and phone number of your Battalion Chief, please.”

He gives me the information and I get back on the phone with dispatch and tell them that we need to get a police officer to that house for a death investigation. I then call the officer who’s going to the scene and explain to him that he’s walking into a situation with a very confused family from Algeria that isn’t culturally familiar with American death investigation laws. Then I call the family at the scene and explain to them that no one is in trouble, but a uniformed officer is coming to their house to make a report because that’s how it’s done here. The family member who answers the phone at the scene tells me that he just got a call from the firefighter who was at his house earlier. Apparently, the Lieutenant got the family’s phone number from dispatch (who had no problem handing out information to him) and attempted to furiously back-pedal and re-engineer his earlier recommendations to the family.

Finally, I call the on-duty battalion chief. When he answers, I introduce myself and he tells me he’s already spoken to the Lieutenant who has explained the situation and mia-culpa-ed until he practically wet his turn-out gear. I tell the BC that, while I appreciate the fact that the Lieutenant appraised him of the situation, I don’t believe there is a thorough understanding of what went wrong here. I reiterate that several laws were broken and that the local heroes need to understand that they are not the goddamned authority in every circumstance. They need to respect their own scope of practice, stay in their lane and stop authoritatively winging it when they encounter an unfamiliar situation. More importantly, they need to understand that it was pretty fucking hazardous to just leave it to this family to know when their family member was dead. By the Lieutenant’s own report, most of them didn’t speak English… so what assurance did he have that these people were in any way qualified to pronounce their own family member dead? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always as obvious as you’d think- especially not when someone has been chronically ill and has looked like a corpse for weeks. How does the fire department feel about opening themselves up to that kind of liability? Imagine if she had arrived at the funeral home and they realize she’s still alive? Or worse, imagine the funeral home rolls her into the cooler and finds her on the floor the next morning, because she awoke, attempted to get out, and died of hypothermia, alone is a steel refrigerator surrounded by corpses.

The Battalion Chief harrumphs a few times and is infuriatingly dismissive of my points. He admits that the Lieutenant was out of line, but then says that the Lieutenant admits he was wrong (which is nothing short of a miracle, because in the 9 years I’ve worked this job… as well as the years I worked EMS before that… I have NEVER known a firefighter to admit he was wrong about anything. ) But then the Chief brings it all to a head with the two comments that are, truly, the crux of my long-term beef with the fire department.

“Well,” he says with a condescending tone that implies this settles the matter, “the Lieutenant, he screwed up, but he’s a good guy.”

I’m too infuriated to go on… so he goes on:

“Besides, the Lieutenant just went through his mother’s death. She was in hospice and I think the situation was triggering to him. He was just emotional.”

And there it is.

You might think that I’m being too hard on the fire department, but the truth is, I’m hard on them because no one else is. I don’t know what it’s like in other jurisdictions, but around here, the fire department lives in this magical white tower of imagined infallibility. No one ever questions their judgement or gets in their faces when they fuck up. This results in the Fire Department consistently thinking that they can, literally, do no wrong. I can’t count the number of times that America’s heroes have blithely broken state laws and severely compromised death investigations by simply doing whatever the hell they wanted, and then refusing to accept the possibility that maybe, just maybe, what they did was FUCKING STUPID. And the problem isn’t so much the firefighters themselves, but rather the upper management. The problem is guys like this Battalion Chief who seem to think the excuses he’s offering for his Lieutenant’s gaffe somehow balance out the severity of his mistake.

First of all, I have officially HAD IT with a man’s shitty behavior being dismissed because, “he’s a good guy”. How good a guy he is or isn’t doesn’t change the fact that he broke the goddamned law and put people in danger. So he makes great chili and really knows how to tell a joke… he still needs to do his fucking job. I might bake cookies for my co-workers, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have to show up when someone dies and then write a report about it. And shielding someone from some much needed correction and discipline doesn’t do him, the fire department or the general public any favors. This “good guy” talk communicates to the department as a whole that such behavior is acceptable and you can get a free pass as long as you’re a, “good guy”.

Secondly, as a woman, I’m assuming I don’t have to emphasize to anybody the kind of hit MY professional credibility would take if I explained away impulsive, uninformed behavior by saying I was “emotional”. I would be setting back the progress and self respect of every woman who ever dared to learn to READ if I chalked up my lousy job performance to being emotional. So I cannot stomach the notion that a tulip-toed FIREFIGHTER was using THAT as an excuse. I’ve come to work when I had a fever of 103. I’ve come to work on a freshly sprained ankle. And yes, I came to work less than a week after my own beloved father’s completely unexpected death. I sobbed my brains out in between calls, but you know what? I held it together because that’s what a fucking boss-bitch does. And with the rest of the world in a swirling, panicky, infectious tailspin, I cannot emphasize the importance of emergency workers HOLDING IT TOGETHER. AND NOT ACTING LIKE A BUNCH OF IMPULSIVE SCHOOLGIRLS IN THE MIDST OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC. If you’re too “emotional” to do your job, then you’re compromising all of us. GO THE FUCK HOME!

Oh, them? They don’t really want to vote… they’re just “emotional”

But back to the story at hand…

I glance at the clock. I could growl this out with the Battalion Chief but there’s no point. He’s already boxed up this incident in his mind and filed it away in the “not-that-big-of-a-deal” drawer in his head. I can tell I’m going to have to take this further up their hierarchy and put something in writing. So be it. If I go back to sleep now, I might manage a total of 5 hours before shift change at 0800.

Fine.

Great.

I stagger into the office and hand the pager to my co-worker. I suck down some coffee and take a quick detour into my supervisor’s office to impart the happenings of last night and this morning to her. She’s amazing. No matter how busy she is, she always has time to hear about what fresh-fuckery we encounter on our shifts.

Did I mention she’s the county epidemiologist and she’s got an iron-clad PhD in infectious disease? Did I also mention that she hasn’t eaten an actual meal in almost a month and hasn’t had a day off for 20 days and counting.

Yeah. Guess how she responds to the “emotional fireman” story…

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.

What it Means…

I’m not sure what happened.

I mean, I KNOW what happened because I was there and everything… but … I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m sick, maybe it’s because I’m tired.

Or maybe it’s because I’m starting to lose my touch…

But then again, maybe I’m starting to FIND my touch. Maybe it’s the healthiest reaction I could have had, given the circumstances.

Anyway, I’ll stop being vague and just tell you.

I cried on a scene on a recent shift… something I’ve NEVER done before.  I don’t cry at work.  I’m the fucking medical examiner, I hold it together when everyone else falls apart. I’m the carved, granite face of control and professionalism when the cops are puking, the chaplains are cussing and the funeral-home employees are averting their eyes with disgust.  I don’t cry…

Until now.

And I wish that was all, but I did some othershit that I’ve never done before.  Stay tuned.

So, to be fair to myself (something that never happens) it was a really fucked up call.  It was a baby death that, as far as we can tell right now, is completely unexplained.  They used to call such an event a SIDS death, but there is a push in the medical community to move away from that term.  For anyone who doesn’t know, SIDS stands for “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” and that moniker is problematic because it gives people the impression that there is a diagnosis to be had.

The word “syndrome” sounds like a legit, defined disorder or disease process.  It sounds like  something that can be seen under a microscope. “Syndrome” sounds like a fully researched pathology with a list of risk factors, symptoms and treatments. It sounds like the kind of thing an autopsy would explain.

But sometimes autopsies don’t explain shit.

SIDS deaths are the absenceof an explanation. No one knows why these babies die.  That’s why the modern term for these events is now SUDI: “Sudden UnexplainedDeath in Infancy”. And that phrase is only assigned to a death when every test and exam has been done and we still don’t know what the hell happened.  Maybe someday, the great culprit will be found.  Some researcher somewhere will see the altered morphology of the heart tissue.  Someone will uncover the faulty gene sequence.  A dude in a lab will take a look at a petri dish full of cells and figure it all out. Until then, we’ve got jack.

Which isn’t really the point.  I just tend to ramble about academic drivel when I don’t want to remember what happened.

It was awful, really awful. There was absolutely no reason for this little girl to be dead.  Even as I was talking to the neighbors… the police… the parents… I’ve been in this line of work long enough to be able to pick up on the sense that there wasn’t going to be any solid ground at the bottom of this hole.  It was a SUDI. I knew it.  But still, I investigated my ass off and prayed like hell that I was wrong and that any answer at all might explain why this girl had just stopped breathing. I know what the lack of answers does to the parents of a deceased baby.  I’ve had that conversation several times. I will call up devastated mothers and fathers to give them autopsy results, and then have to admit to them that there aren’t any.  They sit there on the other end of the phone in complete silence, waiting for me to say something more. It’s as though I’ve reached through the phone line and slit their throat. They can’t comprehend that the excruciating void of their loss has no resolution.  It’s awful. We can collect all the facts and still have nothing to show for it. 

The more and more information I gathered on this investigation, the more I suspected that there would be no answers.  The child had been carried to term and born at 40 weeks.  Uncomplicated pregnancy, uncomplicated birth, no risk factors, no illness.  She had been loved and well cared for.  Now, like a wisp of smoke or a popped soap bubble, she was simply gone.

The father asked me if he could hold his daughter before I took her.

I used to be a real stickler about those requests. I thought that letting parents hold their dead infants would compromise the whole investigation.  It would muck up trace evidence.  It was unprofessional.  And to a degree, all of that is correct.  There have to be limits, but these days- a decade into my profession as a deputy medical examiner, and a… a… witness  to all of the realities surrounding death- I wasn’t about to tell him “no”.

The mother wasn’t sure if she wanted to see her daughter- which is fine and normal.  Not everyone needs that moment of seeing their loved one’s body. I know I don’t.  When my Dad died, everyonetold me that I should view him before he was cremated. But I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I was already a medical examiner by then and I didn’t want to remember looking at my dead father every time I walked into a scene.  So I told everyoneto fuck right off and leave my over-worked psyche alone. Grieving people don’t need or want your instructions. 

Quick public service announcement: thinking that someone isn’t reacting appropriately to a personal catastrophe is a shitty, self-righteous projection. And telling someone that they’re not reacting appropriately to a personal catastrophe is basically taking that shitty, self-righteous projection and beating them over the head with it… So don’t do it.

 Anyway, I led the father into a separate room and then brought the girl in to him.  He smoothed her tousled head of feather-fine curls.  He kissed her cheeks and then clutched her to his chest and sobbed convulsively… animal-like… as though his bones were being pulled out of his body through his skin, one by one. “I was worried about paying for her wedding…” he gasped out, not necessarily to me. “Now I’m wondering how I’m going to pay for her funeral…”

I swallowed, I pinched the web of skin between my thumb and my index finger. I breathed in for 6 seconds and out for 8.  I internally shouted at myself: HOLD IT TOGETHER!!! YOU FUCKING HOLD IT TOGETHER. YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL AND YOU DON’T CRY.  But it didn’t matter. My surroundings went watery in my vision and with one blink, the tears tipped from my eyes on to my cheeks. I was crying. For the first time in 10 years, I was crying.

Yeah, it feels something like this… (I stole this art from Pinterest- the artist is Jefferson Muncy, check him out)

Okay, so not so much crying, but I was sniffling. And the first couple of tears laid the pathway for several more to slip down my face before I could collect myself enough to take the tiny, cold form back from her father. I left for the morgue, skirting past the police officers and curious witnesses, doing my best to hide my face as I went. I placed the little body on the front seat of the truck beside me and took her away.

The morgue isn’t scary, even though I always feel like it should be. For some reason, anytime I take a body to the morgue, it’s always dark outside and I’m always the only one there. Even though I’m on shift for 48 hours and people die all the time, for some completely inexplicable reason, I never end up at the morgue during normal business hours. But you get used to it, and so far, the dead have never hurt me. There are several security doors and passcodes.  The lights are always on and as soon as the slithering whoosh of doors sucks you into the cooler, you’re immediately saturated in the sickly-sweet odor of decomposition.  The cooler is always crowded with bodies, most of whom are still in rigor-mortis and frozen in whatever position they died in. They’re also covered in sheets or wrapped in white bags. A limb is held aloft here or there. Perhaps a hand protrudes from the edge of a sheet.  The end effect being they look as though they were all engrossed in some elaborate interpretive dance and froze in place, mid-gesture, when I entered. That night was no different, except for the fact that I simply couldn’t shake my sadness. Generally, when I’m working, I have what I refer to as my “brain condom”. While on shift, without even trying or realizing it I view the endless march of tragedies through a nerve-dulling membrane.  I can see what’s happening and I can acknowledge with deepest sympathy that it’s sad.  But it’s never really sad to me.  And while I’ve recognized what a shame it was that this person or that person was dead, I’ve always known that my feelings on the issue certainly didn’t matter, so why open up my coin purse of emotional nickels and start feeding grief’s hungry slot machine?

Except tonight. Except her.

I put the little girl’s tiny form on the scale and found myself irrationally outraged at the fact that it read a diminutive “17 lbs”.  That scale wasn’t supposed to spit out numbers that small.  Normally it read “185 lbs” or “250 lbs”. I stared down at her and felt angry… and confused… and incredibly sad.I hated that I was going to have to put her on a gurney that was 10 times bigger than she was. I hated that I was going to have to wheel that gurney into a cooler full of corpses in various states of decomposition… most of whom were probably assholes. I hated that I was then supposed to just shut off the lights and leave her there. I hated thinking about her parents cleaning up all the baby stuff in their house. I hated thinking about them having to explain to their other child that he wasn’t a big brother anymore. And then having to explain it again because he wouldn’t understand.  

I hated thinking about her autopsy.

Art by “Shinyrotom”

I’m not religious. I used to be, but not anymore.  I’m not saying that I don’t believe in God, but I am saying that I don’t much like church or a lot of the people you’ll find there.  In my experience, they’ve never much liked me either. I was a weird kid and I grew up to be an even weirder adult. Church just felt like a continuation of the exhausting work and irretractable rejection I dealt with at school and home.  There was always some task that I had failed to do… always some social maneuver that I had failed to navigate.  Being “Godly” seemed to go hand-in-hand with being popular and beautiful and I was never either. And, church aside, after almost 15 years of witnessing people’s seemingly pointless and random suffering, followed by the gut-punch of my own cancer diagnosis… Well, I just wasn’t altogether sure what I thought of God. More importantly, if God existed at all… I wasn’t sure I could be convinced that God necessarily gave a shit about us.

Case in point… why the hell was this kid dead? What purpose did it serve? How did it fit into God’s plan which I had heard so fucking much about as a child? As I stood there, looking at her little dead body, I could hear all the empty platitudes: God works in mysterious ways.

I guess resurrection was on the brain.

A couple of shifts ago, Henry had a family lose their shit on him because their brother was autopsied before they could pray him back to life.  No shit, they called and specifically asked that we delay the autopsy for 3 days so God could work the resurrection.  Then they freaked out to learn that, through an array of miscommunications, their loved one was autopsied the same afternoon that he was found dead. They believed it was our fault he didn’t come back to life.  We fucked up their miracle by being too efficient.  At the time that all this had played out, Henry and I had sat on the curb outside our office, passing a Marlboro Red between us and cackling with laughter between drags. But tonight it seemed less funny…

I put my hand on the little chest, feeling the cool, smooth velvet of her skin.  I put my other hand on her head and closed my eyes.

God? I took a deep breath… Um, hi.  I know I haven’t talked to you for a while and I don’t know what to say.  I know that this isn’t something that you do anymore…maybe you never did. But if you ever did… how about now?  If it ever occurred to you to bring someone back to life… if you ever had it in your head to take something back… how about now?  Why not this one? Please?  Just this once… it’s not for me… please?

I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen. But yeah, I prayed for God to bring her back to life… probably prayed harder and with more sincerity than I’ve ever prayed for anything…which has to be the definition of PTSD or unprofessionalism. I must have broken some rule somewhere…

Not to mention the fact that when it didn’t work and the wave of sadness receded, it occurred to me to consider the real-life, practical implications of what I was asking. Namely, what the hell would I have done if it had worked?

For starters, it would have scared the shit out of me… which raises the question of which do I believe in more? God or zombies? Secondly, what the hell would I have to say for myself? How would that phone call to my supervisor have gone? 

“Hey… soooooooo… ummmmmmm… that baby that I just took to the morgue from that scene? Yeah, I think I’m going to have to bring her back?”

The sheer ridiculousness of the thought snapped me out of my existential stupor and I laughed out loud right there, alone in the morgue. Alone except for my story, my work, and a God that may or may not have anything to do with us. 

When I wheeled her into the cooler, I made sure to keep her away from the addicts and the homicides. I tucked her into a corner next to an 11-year-old boy who’d been hit by a car.  I told her to keep him company and I asked him to look out for her because she needed a big brother.  I shut the lights off. I closed the door. I went home.

I have no idea what any of this means. Is it a good thing that my emotions surged to surface with such force that tears and prayers came out?  Does it mean I’m losing my mind?  Am I burned out? I don’t know. Maybe this is the beginning of the end.  Maybe it’s time to move on to something else. 

But on the other hand, maybe it’s time to take a step back from the traditional standpoint of utter stoicism and indifference.  A military veteran friend of mine who has some extensive PTSD told me once that trauma tends to pick off your emotions, one-by-one, until all you have left is rage and contempt.  And if you stick with your trauma long enough, even those will disappear… leaving you a hollow, dead-eyed golem… Dragging onward toward your last paycheck. So if I’m crying… I’m still there, right?

Or maybe this is happening because child deaths have started hitting me differently. After quite the unexpected turn of events, I’m about to acquire 2 young stepkids who are already dearer to me than I ever could have imagined.

Kids.

I’m a stepmom.

I don’t remember the last time I was responsible for kids who were ALIVE.

This should be interesting…

What the Hell?

Poor Henry.

I know that I frequently talk about Henry as though he’s some kind of investigative super-giant mega-hero… and he is.  Henry has been in the game since before it was a game.  Henry was death-investigating when Cain killed Abel. I’m pretty sure that as soon as that little sibling rivalry crash-landed into its inevitable end, Henry rode in on a donkey, took one look at the carnage and said something like, “Behold! Verily I say unto thee, thine sons hath argued and alas, one hath bashed the other about the noggin with ye olde rock! Thus goeth such travesties betwixt men and I heartily declare the manner to be a homicide! The first of its kind! Now where are my cigarettes?”

I’m not gonna say Henry’s older than dirt, but I will say I’ve seen his apartment and some of the coffee mugs in his sink haven’t been cleaned since a mass-casualty incident known as The Donner Party staggered in from the cold.

Every time I see him at shift change, I’m awash in a salty wave of sympathy co-mingled with fear. Because Henry is scary when he gets off shift… as scary as a gnarled old tree, alone at a crossroads, bereft of leaves or birds… twisted and malformed as it struggles toward the light… while smoking a Marlboro red and grumbling that Starbucks coffee tastes burnt.

God, he looks tired… I always think.  When I see Henry at the end of his 48 hour shift… which actually marks the beginning of mine… he’s always sporting a scraggly grizzle of a beard and clothes that look like he’s just fought his way up a volcano to dispose of a cursed ring. He looks kind of like a brillo pad that’s been used to clean a barbecue.

We smoke together at the end of his shift, it’s the only time I do so anymore. The two of us leave the sterile blue maze of cubicles and meander across the street for caffeine and nicotine.  And to be fair, I don’t actually smoke so much as I take a few drags from his cigarettes as we loiter juuuuuust outside the boundaries of what’s considered “county property”. I tell Henry about my latest dating misadventures and he offers me nuggets of wisdom which he mined from his three marriages. Then he fills me in on whatever lunacy happened during his shift- thereby preparing me for the screwball calls I’m going to get over the course of my shift. 

“Some dumbass gave the family of this suicide victim our cell phone number so be prepared to deal with that… they’re doing the typical bullshit, claiming that someone must have murdered him and then forged the note…” he’ll tell me.

“This doctor is refusing to sign this death certificate. Or rather, his STAFF says he’s refusing to sign the death certificate.  See if you can actually get the doc on the phone because his secretary is a moron.”

“This funeral home is saying they don’t have this guy’s wedding ring and they claim he wasn’t wearing it when he came in, but its right there in all our scene photos so tell them to check their employees pockets again and quit blaming their fuck-ups on us.”

And so it goes.

For the most part Henry’s hand-off reports tend to be pretty standard. But as you may remember from previous tales. Henry is the king of weird shit, the Mayor of crazytown… the crowned prince of “what-the-hell”?

Some mornings Henry is particularly quiet.  He smokes his cigarette in sullen contemplation as he threads through exactly how to explain the sordid tale he’s about to tell me.  Because the fact is, sometimes shit goes so screwy on Henry’s shift that it defies description.  But he has to describe it to me, since I’m the one batting clean-up.

“Listen,” he said to me one morning.  He had been standing on the curb, silent for the last 10 minutes, thoughtfully examining the glowing ember at the end of his cigarette.  “You might get a call from a guy today…”

“Okay…” I said carefully.

“He called yesterday and wanted to talk to our supervisor about the suicide prevention program…”

“Okay…” I said again.  We get calls from time to time on our suicide prevention program.  It’s considered groundbreaking amongst our profession and our office has managed to quantify the suicides we’ve curtailed as a result of our policies and practices… which sounds great to say, but it looks even better on paper.  Other agencies call from time to time asking for information and training- hoping to implement our program into their region so that they might have to deal with fewer suicides.  Which I don’t mind telling you are probably the most prevalent non-natural deaths that we medical examiners see.  I know shows like “Criminal Minds would have you believe that the United States is just writhing like an ant-hill with serial killers at any given moment.  But the fact is, the biggest killer of people in America is themselves… followed closely by big pharma and doctors who prescribe too many goddamned narcotics.

Anyway, Henry rubbed his forehead in consternation and the lines around his eyes deepened.

“This guy… he called wanting to talk to Ken about the suicide prevention program… because he wants to commit suicide.”

“Ummmm… what?”

“Yeah, he called and said that he was planning on committing suicide and he wanted to talk to Ken about suicide prevention.”

“I don’t understand… did he want help or something?  Like was he looking for mental health resources?”

“Nope.”  Henry shrugged.  “He said he had decided to commit suicide and he wanted to know the best way to do it. He also said that it wasn’t going to be anytime soon, but it was what he’d decided to do and he figured he also had some insight that might be helpful to our program.”

“Wait… he called to find out the best way to commit suicide?”

Henry nodded.

“I told him that our program was suicide PREVENTION. And was there anything I could do to help him other than help him kill himself.  He said ‘no’ and insisted that he wanted to talk to Ken.”

“What the hell, man?” I marveled as I throttled back a laugh and plucked Henry’s cigarette out of his hand. I took a deep drag and handed it back. “What did Ken say?”

“Well… Ken didn’t know what the fuck to make of it so he called up HIS supervisor, who called the head of Health and Human Services. They called the police shrink and adult protective services before the whole shit-parade marched right in to county council…”

“Jesus, it went to county council?”

Henry nodded emphatically as he sucked the last gasp from his cigarette and lit another one. Just to be clear I’ve never actually met anyone on county council. I’ve never even seen them. They’re like this mystical panel of administrators who convene in a big mahogany room decorated with brass light fixtures and maps. They all sit in big-ass leather wing-baked chairs and decide shit as they swirl around big snifters of brandy. And much like the gods on Mount Olympus, it’s never a good thing to be on their radar unless you’re one of their illegitimate children… even then it’s a dice roll.  

“So what’s the word from on high?” I asked

“So… basically…” Henry looked up and met my eyes for the first time that morning. “They said we can’t do a damn thing about him.  He’s perfectly sane and he’s not an ‘immediate’ danger to himself or anyone else.  We can’t put him on a mental health hold or make him a ward of the state.  All we can really do is hang around and wait for him to kill himself. And County Council is telling Ken not to talk to him.  No one who has an office wants to get blamed for failing to intervene when this dude finally decides to lay down for the long-dirt nap.”

“Fuck me, seriously?”I spat through my mouthful of coffee.

Henry nodded.

“So… anyway… he might call during your shift. Good luck.” 

Well, the good news is he didn’t call… and the bad news is he didn’t call. Nor has he turned up dead in our county, and no one has spoken a word about him since Henry gave me that hand-off report.  It seems to me as though if we were serious about suicide prevention, we might actually follow up with this guy and see if there’s anything we might do to… you know… PREVENT HIS SUICIDE.  But it appears that everyone would much rather swirl the brandy around in their glasses and discuss policies without ever actually implementing any of them.

Ahhh, the life of a politician.

Meanwhile, scrubs like Henry and I are flailing around in the quagmire of human existence and dealing with situations like this one:

I was out with a few of the local deputies and we may or may not have been drinking adult beverages when one of them blurted out to me. 

“So, I hear anal kills!”

“Uh…what?”

“Anal!” He hollered at me over the jukebox. “You know, like anal sex? Anal kills!”

“Dude,” I hollered back at him, “Is this like a PSA or something?”

“Was this not your case?” 

“Jesus… no! I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

“Oh,” he said, looking disappointed. “Maybe it was Henry, I don’t know but there was some death with anal sex.”  Then he continued drinking his beer like he’d never said a thing and didn’t bother to tell me what curiosity drove him to yelling “ANAL KILLS!” in a crowded drinking-class bar that was full of off-duty dock-workers and cops.

So, the next time I saw Henry, I got the real story. And I elicited it from him in much the same way that it was presented to me.  The two of us were sitting down to lunch in a local restaurant and I didn’t even bother wait for the waitress to finish taking our drink orders.

“So, I understand anal kills…”

The waitress didn’t bother giving us the day’s specials and hustled away like a scolded puppy.

“I beg your pardon?” Henry said, daintily dropping his napkin in his lap and pulling out his glasses to examine the appetizers. I could have just said, “Looks like rain” or “I hear there’s a meteor hurdling through space at our heads and we’re all going to be dead in 36 hours.” It wouldn’t matter.  Henry is unfalteringly Henry, regardless of the current crisis. 

“Anal, Henry” I pouted.  “Anal sex killed someone recently and you didn’t even tell me about it.”  I sighed with a wounded air and gazed sadly into the middle distance, feeling as though something had gone tragically wrong in our relationship if Henry neglected to tell me about an anal-sex death.

“Oh, that…” he said, flatly. He folded the menu and leaned back in his chair, pausing to remove his glasses and polish them on his shirt. “I mean it wasn’t anything too outrageous.”

“How could an anal-sex death not be outrageous?”

“So… this dude was having his 50thbirthday. He finally talked his wife into trying anal sex.  I’m not sure who she asked about it or who she was talking to, but I guess she went into Sneakers adult store and the guy there gave her some poppers.”

“Poppers?”

“Yeah… poppers. You… you… do KNOW what poppers are, right?”

For a second I considered playing it off.  I like to think I’m fairly in-the-know when it comes to kink and I’ve, like… you know… been to Burning Man and stuff.  But I’m a shitty liar and Henry has been an investigator sniffing out lies longer than I’ve been alive so what was the point?

“Do you mean like nitrous?”

“No, poppers are amyl nitrite. They sell it in little vials at sex stores, it’s supposed to relax the sphincter to make anal sex easier or something.  But you’re supposed to inhale it. This woman was so freaked out about anal sex that she went to get some of it.  The guy at the shop told her to inhale it, NOT drink it. There were two warning labels on it that said ‘Do not drink’. But guess what she did.”

“Oh… she drank it.”

“Yup, at first she just thought she felt sick after they… you know…But she started vomiting and he found her on the bathroom floor a couple hours later.”

“Ooof”

“Yup,” 

“Anal kills.”

“Yup,” Henry sighed. “So have you tried the Hungarian mushroom soup here? It’s supposed to be pretty good.”  

But that’s Henry: Completely unflappable and utterly placid.  Nothing ripples his surface… or rather, almost nothing.

There was one morning that Henry and I went out for our traditional coffee and cigarette meeting and he seemed particularly unnerved. I would even say “spooked.”  That morning he scorched through his first Marlboro red with distracted agitation. And rather than press him for information, I waited until he was ready to talk.

“Yesterday.” He rubbed his hands together nervously and looked up at me. “I went to the death of a younger guy, 34. He didn’t have any history other than feeling sick and missing work.  His brother found him when he went to check on him.  The guy hadn’t been answering his phone for a couple of days. No drugs, no alcohol, nothing suspicious.”

“Okaaaaay…” I said carefully.

“Thing is,” Henry continued. “I was on-scene in his apartment for almost three hours.  And when I finally came back out again… the entire family was there.”

“Oh god, that’s never good,” I responded.

And it isn’t. The arrival of an “entire family” as Henry had put it, generally heralds a shit-show of epic proportion.  Don’t get me wrong, we have no issues with people wanting to support each other and say goodbye to their deceased loved one.  The problem is, that’s NOT what they’re doing when they show up on-scene.  Families that show up on-scene are flipping the fuck out.  They’re screaming and crying, not only at the death itself, but also at each other.  All of the latent family-issues and quiet resentments start tumbling out like a goddamnned clown car and as the medical examiner, you’re the fucking ring-master.  Everyone is full of outlandish demands and truly baffling misinformation that they gleaned from watching CSI. And it doesn’t take long for someone to pull out the blame-gun and just start firing it off in every direction. 

“So, what happened?”

“Well,” Henry muttered, rubbing his face with his free hand and flicking the ash from his cigarette. “They prayed.”

“Huh?”

“I came out of the apartment, and the entire family was on their knees on the front walk, praying.”

“Do you mean…” I balked to say it out loud. “Were… they… praying for him to come back to life?”

Henry pointed at me with his cigarette. “Bingo.”

“Oh, shit!” I gasped

“Yeah, and I had to tell them that I was taking him in for an autopsy.”

“Oh, fuck…”

“Yeah… and you know what they told me?”

“What?”

“They said they wanted me to postpone the autopsy for three days.”

I blinked in disbelief. “You mean… like Jesus Christ? Like… they think he’s going to come back to life on the third day?”

“Yep. And so, I called Dr. Stone and she was like, ‘Fuck it’ we’re too busy anyway, tell them we’ll wait if that’s what they want.’”

“So… so… wait, that message that I picked up this morning on the office phone before you got there…” I HAD picked up a message on the office phone.  Henry had been a bit late so I was killing time with checking voice-mails before he showed up to hand off the shift. One message had been some frantic-sounding guy, asking that we wait to talk to him before doing his brother’s autopsy.  I had been planning on calling him back later on in the morning.

Henry nodded. “The family wants to go to the morgue and pray over him one last time before the autopsy.”

“Ummmm, what are we going to tell him?”

“aw… dude, you’re too late. We already gave away your clothes!”

I was fairly certain we weren’t going to accede to that request. One of the many features of the medical examiner’s office that TV gets wrong is the highly dramatic “body identification” scene.  You know, the one in which a dead person’s family stands there while the body is rolled out on a table and everyone has their poignant last goodbye? Well that doesn’t happen.  The medical examiner’s office is a secured facility that doesn’t allow visitors for any reason.  And if we don’t allow people to come in to identify a body, we sure as hell aren’t going to allow them in to pray over one.  Not that it mattered in this case.

“It’s too late.” Henry said, cringing.

“Well… I know that.  But what are you going to tell the brother?”

“No, no,” Henry shook his head.  I mean it’s TOO LATE.”

“What do you mean?” I was still confused.

“It’s too late.  Dr. Stone said she’d wait to do the post mortem.  But Dr. Gillis came in and saw how slammed Dr. Stone was.  So he went ahead and started doing autopsies on Dr Stone’s cases. He started cutting people up like fuckin’ Hannibal Lecter before anyone could stop him.”

“And Dr. Gillis… “

“Dr. Gillis did this guy’s autopsy two days ago… literally 4 hours after he was found.”

“Oh shit…” I gasped again. “So this family has spent the last 3 days thinking their son was going to come back to life.  And he’s… he’s…”

I didn’t have to say it out loud.  We both knew because we’ve both seen autopsies.  This family’s son had been completely dismantled like a stolen car. I mean, I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that his brain was now in slices and wrapped up in a plastic bag inside his abdomen.  And, I mean…theoretically, if God can bring someone back to life BEFORE their autopsy, what’s to say he can’t bring them back AFTER it. But still, I’m not sure if there’s a statute of limitations on miracles.  And I have to assume that putting all those organs back together in their original order would be a pretty hefty favor… one I doubt the almighty would be willing to undertake even for the Pope, let alone some dude named Craig with bad tattoos and an uninsured Hyundai. 

Henry sighed miserably.

“Dude…” despite my horror, or maybe because of it, I had started giggling.  “You have to call this family and explain to them that we ruined their son’s resurrection by doing his autopsy 2 days early?”

“Yeah.”

“They’re gonna be SO pissed…”

“Yeah.”

I shook my head. “What the hell…?”

It’s perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen Henry scared. Which is pretty impressive considering he’s only about 2 years out from retirement. I have no idea what he’s going to do after that, maybe finally wash his dishes. But until then, you can catch the two of us, standing on a curb passing a single cigarette back and forth like the baton I’ll eventually take when Henry decides to move on. We’re pretty careful about what we say when other people are within ear-shot, but if you sneak up on us, you might manage to catch snatches of conversation that go something like this:

“-took his head clean off like a dandelion…”

“-so I told her, ‘ma’am you can’t bury him in your backyard, no matter what your shaman told you…’”

“-an entire crate full of dildos under his bed…”

  But that’s all you’ll get.  Henry will likely catch sight of you and the two of us will clam right up until you walk away.  And as you do, you might overhear us saying something to the tune of :

“That guy was listening to us.”

“Yeah, he was.  How much do you think he heard?”

“I don’t know. God, people are so weird.”

“I know, right? I mean who wants to hear stories like ours? What the hell?”

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…

In continuation of the last installment of Dead Men’s Donuts-

ACT II

 

So, after I removed the dead mini-coop driver from the scene of the MVA, I had to take him to a local funeral home where I could do a good, thorough exam before contacting the forensic pathologist to discuss an autopsy. Seeing as how the scene was overrun with cameras and reporters, I wasn’t about to spread our decedent out on the side of the road for God and everybody to see. Nor could I just take him into the office since our doctors REALLY don’t like having bodies show up un-announced.

 

Unfortunately, a change of venue was not going to make this poor guy’s death any less… gruesome. A human body is pretty much just a big sack of fluids that are kept in place and prevented from free-flowing all over the floor by a fairly complex and delicately balanced system of tubes, pumps and valves. When that system stops functioning properly… or stops functioning at all… it’s just puddles everywhere. The fact that this guy had a wide array of holes in his fluid sack only made matters worse. Every time I had to maneuver his body around to document yet another fracture or laceration… the movement flicked blood here and there until the floor around me looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.  Although working on an ambulance made me as nimble as Neo from “The Matrix” when it came to dodging airborne body parts and fluids (blood, vomit, amniotic fluid… teeth… you name it) I was unable to completely avoid all of the spatter. (Imagine hugging a basset hound without getting drool on you… It just can’t be done.) While I left the exam with a complete index of all our dead guy’s injuries, I also left sporting a liberal sprinkle of his blood on my right thigh.

 

Blood on your clothes is an unavoidable part of being a medical examiner. However, if/when you DO get blood on you, it’s considered very bad form to just LEAVE it there.

 

As I left the funeral home I stared down at the spray of blood and frowned. I knew I really should go home and change clothes, but on the other hand, the accident involving the owner of that blood had already eaten up a good portion of my day and I had a million things to do… including run down to my ophthalmologist’s office for a brief exam to make sure my eyes were healing properly after my lasik procedure. I was sorely overdue for my three month follow-up and they said that, today, if I could make it into the office before 2 p.m. they would just squeeze me in for a quick look. I glanced at my phone and noted it was 1:30. I had a half hour before my window closed and I would have to put off the appointment until God-knows-when. Coordinating the office’s schedule with my own had been a huge problem and they didn’t really have any appointments available on my days off until next month. I glanced down at my pant-leg again. The blood wasn’t too obvious. If you squinted, it almost looked like soy sauce… That was it! If anyone asked, I would just tell them I had Chinese for lunch.

 

Twenty minutes later, I was kicked back in an exam chair, waiting for the doctor to come in and take a gander at my dead-lights. My relief was palpable. I was getting things done. I was the picture of productivity and time-management… I was … wearing someone’s blood on my pants… but nobody else needed to know that.

 

“Hello hello, Grace,” the doctor chirped as she walked in. “I’m so glad you could make it in today! You’re overdue!” We exchanged the typical pleasantries as the doctor seated herself and wheeled up to me to stare into my eyes. “So your eyes are healing beautifully,” she gushed as she swung a variety of machines and devices in front of my face. I was staring through a series of lenses and reading letters when it happened.

 

“Okay!” The doctor was saying as I read letters off a screen. “It looks as though your left eye is a … little..bit… um…” Her voice trailed off. I glanced away from the big metal machine the doctor had positioned in front of my face, to find that she was staring at the blood flecks on my thigh.

 

Now, I could have played it off like it was soy sauce on my pants like I had planned. I’m not ashamed to admit that I can lie like road-kill when I have to (To this day, my parents still have no idea what really happened to the living-room carpet when I was 13).  But in this case I didn’t see the point. Doctors know blood… even if they haven’t seen it for decades, a doctor will always know a blood stain when they see one. Hell, sometimes when I’m walking around downtown with Husband, I’ll point out all the bloodstains on the sidewalk, just to horrify him.

 

The doctor coughed and regained her train of thought while I, without stopping to consider, blurted out the first, idiot thought that streaked through my mind:

 

“Oh… ha! Don’t worry none of that is my blood!”

 

I added the laugh in the hopes of lightening the whole blood-thing a little bit, but in retrospect, I suppose it probably sounded more maniacal than nonchalant.

 

You know you’re a medical examiner when you think people will be reassured when you tell them that the blood all over your clothes isn’t actually yours.

 

 

The Greatest Show on Earth?

So an actor died this past week… You probably heard.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit and I’ve decided I want to talk about it… But I’m not going to mention his name because… well… because I don’t want to. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked his movies, and from what I have heard, he actually seemed to be an okay guy as far as actors go. He didn’t get married and divorced multiple times, he didn’t inflict a chaos-infused personal life on the general public. The guy made movies, acted in plays and he was really, really good at it. That said, I didn’t KNOW him. I never met him, he wasn’t my hero and I can’t say I knew anything about him at all. So I don’t want to talk about HIM so much as I want to talk about us… as a society… as a people… as a species, and how we react to the deaths of people we don’t really know.

Just to get it out of the way… We suck. And this actor’s death once again brings that sad fact into painfully sharp focus.

The truth, dressed in it’s most modest clothing and standing quietly in the middle of the information freeway, is this:

If someone’s life was none of our business… their death is certainly none of our business.

There are a few exceptions, but not many. Perhaps I should say: “-their death is none of our business unless it’s a matter of public health, or their death in some way affects our civil rights.” Otherwise, just shut up about it okay? SHUT UP!

I’m not certain why we can’t seem to grasp the whole concept of privacy in death. But I have a few theories. We really love to be informed. I agree with most folks that it’s a good idea to be informed- violence, superstition, corruption and tyranny flourish in societies where the general populace is intentionally kept in ignorance. So, to a degree, information is something of an inoculation against such evils.

The problem is, we’ve taken this idea to the extreme and created an intellectual climate in which we believe we are self-righteously entitled to absolutely anything we want to know. If a president has a dog, we want to know it’s name. If an actress has a baby, we want to know if she’s going to breast feed. If a celebrity has sex, we want to see the video… hooo boy do we EVER want to see THAT video.

If someone dies, we want to know why… and we want to see the body… naked, if at all possible. We want to jam our noses into their mortal wounds and take a good long whiff of their viscera. Then we want to finger the embalming holes in their skin, trace the Y-incision from the autopsy with our tongues and then tweet about our self-indulgent devastation. We’re not actually going to GAIN anything from it… we didn’t necessarily KNOW this person… but we still want to see… and judge… and comment.

I’d like to blame the media, but I can’t really say it’s all their fault. One could argue that the whole media monster evolved to fill a need that we already had… the need to know. But the media, in it’s most common incarnation these days, isn’t about feeding a need nearly so much as it drives to create one. And we help them by consuming the quivering slop that they dish out and call “journalism”.

I don’t know where the phrase came from: “The public has a right to know…” or whatever the fuck their utterly-bull-shit-self-justifying line-of-drivel is these days. But the media convinces us that we want to know something. They convince us that we have every RIGHT to know something- and they are working… nay, they are FIGHTING for our right to know… they are our advocates in the war against ignorance! Hell, they’re our champions!

Except they’re not, especially not when everyone wants to know about YOU.

I’m getting off track.

The afternoon that this actor was found dead, I went to an exercise class. During warm-up, the instructor mentioned that the actor had passed. Instantly everyone was abuzz with comments. When did he die? Where did he die? What did he die of? And, naturally, somebody decided to go ahead and spray this shit all over the room:

“They say he was found with a needle in his arm!”

I grit my teeth and spoke up. Because whenever anyone starts talking about the mechanics of death, I tend to feel like something of an authority.

“They can’t possibly know that with any certainty,” I snapped. “The media makes up lies all the time and then publish it in the hopes that they’re right. I’ve seen it happen.”

Naturally, the people who didn’t shoot me a “what-the-fuck” look simply sighed with exasperation and continued on with their speculations about what they had now decided was the actor’s lurching monster of a heroin addiction. I was just that weird girl in the back of the room… the one who touches dead people… like… on purpose.

If they would have bothered listening, I would have told them the story of a happily married couple in Maine who had their deaths crucified, spread-eagle on the internet by that oozing legion of shit-smearing monkeys known as the media.

I had been called to the tidy little suburb by local police who had been contacted by the local mailman after he found a note in the mailbox belonging to this couple. (Lets call them Mr. and Mrs. Jones for the sake of clarity.)

The note was from Mr. Jones and, admittedly, it initially seemed to indicate the worst had occurred. In this note, he basically stated that both he and his wife were now deceased in their house and would someone please call the police.

This note seemed consistent with the behavior of a man who had first killed his wife, and then himself. I have no problem admitting that. Initially, we treated the situation as a murder-suicide. Of course, we didn’t call the fucking reporters in and tell them so… no way. But naturally, when the police cars started showing up, some local dim-wit of a housewife decided to ring up the local newspaper and the next thing you know, there was a swarm of buzzing insects… all with questions and cameras and the utterly ludicrous claim that the “public had a right to know.”

Now, no one who was actually a part of the investigation even bothered to make eye-contact with these ass-holes. But the neighbors apparently weren’t the type to learn from example- strange, since all of their houses looked equally boring and every single one of them was wearing the same goddamned yoga pants and Uggs- you’d think that blind imitation was the language of the realm.

Anyway, as soon as the news vans rolled in every single local came prancing out of their homes, full to bursting with comments and sound-bytes for the reporters, because after all…. why stay at home and WATCH television when you can be ON it?

I remember one woman stood in the middle of the lawn across the street from the Jones’ home and squealed with melodramatic torment to anyone within ear-shot that “… they were such NICE people…” and she “… just couldn’t BELIEVE that HE would DO this…”

Mind you, no one official had actually SAID that Mr. Jones had killed Mrs. Jones and then himself. But it appeared that when the officers had asked the neighbors when was the last time they had seen either Mr. or Mrs. Jones, everyone correctly surmised that they were both dead… then INCORRECTLY deduced that Mr. Jones was an enraged murderer, I guess because that’s how these things go on TV.

This was where everything really started to get fucked up.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones had two adult sons whom we were trying to reach to notify them of their parents’ death. Ideally, we would have dispatched uniformed officers to either their homes or their places of work so that they could be notified in person by someone who had been briefed on EXACTLY what information we did and DID NOT have at that time.

Of course, we never had the chance to perform this task in such a respectful and compassionate manner, because before I had even entered the house to completely document the scene, someone ELSE had already contacted the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Jones on facebook to ask him about the death of his parents.

Yes… on facebook.

Apparently, this person had seen the “breaking news” reports claiming that Mr. Jones had murdered his wife and then himself. Seeing the Jones’ house on the television, this “friend” realized exactly to which Mr. and Mrs. Jones the news report was referring. Rather than stand at a respectful distance and wait to see how the whole situation unfolded, this numbskull jumped on facebook and started assaulting the Jones family with queries as to what happened, then updating his own status to read that he was “shocked and saddened” by this whole turn of events…

… so shocked and saddened that he obviously had no choice but to treat the whole calamity as though it was a delectable, high-school rumor. It wouldn’t surprise me if this dip-shit posted a “selfie”, wiping tears from his eyes and wearing an expression of bewildered misery.

I was halfway through my scene assessment when my pager started beeping incessantly, Mr. Jones Jr. was calling every public service office in the county, trying to get anyone to tell him what the hell was going on.

In short order, he was directed to the Medical Examiner’s office and ultimately, to my pager, at which point, I had no choice but to call him and let him know that I really had no information to give him just yet because we had literally JUST ENTERED THE DAMN HOUSE! He asked me who told the news-reporters that his dad had killed his mom if no one had any information yet. I had to tell him that I had absolutely no idea where that report had come from. But the media does what they want- and in the absence of actual data, they just started making shit up.

It wasn’t until the next day, when Mrs. Jones autopsy was completed, that the truth of the matter came to light. Mrs. Jones had died of a brain aneurysm… a big, fat blood vessel in her head had burst and killed her. Upon finding her body, Mr. Jones was so incredibly devastated and disoriented that he hanged himself in his bedroom closet.

The local newspapers completely dropped the story at that point. The big, front-page-domestic-homicide-horror-show had dried up and they moved on to the next, fresh corpse. Mr. Jones was never publicly exonerated for killing his wife. No retraction was issued. No one apologized to the sons for spreading such a deplorable lie. No one cared, the media got their story, they got their ratings, they got their web-site hits… and that’s all that mattered to them. The neighbors got to see themselves on the nightly news, wailing like a bunch of Old Testament mourners. As far as the world knew, the man was a murderer… and that was that.

I wish I could say that was an isolated incident. Everyday I’m approached by a swarm of curious, smut-seeking lookie-loos every time I park my truck.

“What happened,” some bulging-eyed onlooker will demand as I climb out of the driver’s seat. “Is someone DEAD?” They glance at the “County Medical Examiner” printed on the door of my truck and then peer suspiciously around us, wondering if they may have overlooked some spectacular carnage.

Generally, I’ll reply: “It’s nothing. Everything’s fine,” or, “It’s not really my place to talk about it,” or I’ll say, “Dude, I’m just here to get some groceries…” because, yes… that happens.

I’ve had to herd spectators away from car accidents… people who crossed police lines and slyly sidled past fire-engines in the hopes of getting close enough to actually SEE some free-range gore.

I’ve dragged family members into bathrooms or stuffed them in that very same truck and driven a block away from a scene rather than leave those ravaged souls on display for a gaggle of neighbors whose capacity for compassion or tact seems to have evaporated out of their gaping mouths.

I’ve seen people pull out cell-phones and take pictures of blood on the pavement.

I saw one guy lift his tiny-toddler son on to his shoulders so that the little tyke could get a better view of a suicide victim who had plummeted off a parking garage at the mall… apparently, defending his boy’s right to see splattered brain tissue before heading inside to get a cinnabon.

We are over-exposed. We are over-indulged. We are over-informed. We still want blood-for-sport, just as much as the thronging crowds of the Roman Coliseum. Only now we want it in high-def surround sound on the nightly news. We want to see bodies, we want to gorge ourselves on bereavement, we want devastation and tragedy. We all want a piece of everyone’s big, fat death pie.

Why?

Why is it so hard to accept that some things really are private? Why have we all forgotten how to avert our eyes for decency’s sake?

I don’t have the answer.

All I can do, is shake my head, wave the gawkers on and say with as much pleading conviction as possible,

“Please, move along…. there’s nothing to see, here.”