Admission #92: Coroner
I’ve spent over a week trying to write a post about my experience at the morgue, specifically the coroner’s office. Initially, I was very excited. “How badass is this?” I thought to myself.
But I’m going to be honest: the whole thing left me feeling pretty messed-up inside.
The first thing that hits you before you even see the dead bodies is the smell. The butcher’s meat section. But much stronger. As I suit up in gloves, gown, booties, mask, and face shield, I tell myself I’ll be damned if I puke. I hear it happens a lot.
The autopsy wasn’t bad. Initially it was disconcerting, looking at this corpse on the cold metal table. He had been alive 48 hours ago, before a car hit him. He looked asleep, even with the bruises on his arms and face.
Coroners and their techs use swift, viciously efficient strokes. Garden clippers snap the ribs and lift the entire chest plate out in a matter of seconds; the scalpel is a quick silver streak slicing and dicing the internal organs faster than you can blink. A steel ladle, like the one in my mother’s kitchen, dips into the thorax and removes blood; black in the ladle, but dripping bright ruby red back into the chest cavity. It is goes into a mason jar and is sealed neatly by bloodied, glove-clad hands. Another steel ladle scoops the stomach contents out. A tech says, “Oh look, a blueberry. Someone had a healthy breakfast.” A group member turns to vomit. One down.
The coroner is a great teacher. He asks us to identify heart, kidney, and liver anatomy. Shows us how to weigh organs and how to preserve pieces for the pathologists to mount onto slides. Shows me how to stick my hand and arm up the dead body’s throat to feel the brain’s occipital lobe, which smashed through the tentorium due to the force of the car collision. I feel it, soft and flan-like under the slight pressure of my index-finger. ”This must be how Lady MacBeth thought her hands looked.” I stare at the blood tracing patterns on my gloved hand and arm. Wow, I think. And I feel like a pervert. I push aside my group members, pull off my gloves as quickly as I can, shoving them deep into a trashcan. I get a fresh pair of white latex gloves.
Meanwhile, the small blonde technician takes an electric saw to the dead body’s head. The coroner now quizzes us on brain anatomy. But all I can think about is the new smell assaulting my nose. Tired and dizzy, I turn around to identify the source.
On the metal slab where the suicide victim was now lies what I can only believe to be the most foul-smelling and realistic movie prop I have ever had the misfortune of encountering. ‘It’ is a she, gray skin stretched taut and dry over delicate bones and atrophied muscles. Her mouth is a large ‘O’ and her back is petrified by rigor mortis in an impossible arch towards the sky. “They found her body decomposing on the side of the highway. Probably been out there for weeks.” The smell is rotting flesh. I hear a group-member gag. Two down. Mercifully, the autopsy is over and I burst out of the room, making a beeline for the elevator. But I come face-to-face with a death mask.
The skull is clean—white with charcoal in his orbital cavities. The man committed suicide by setting himself on fire, doused in gasoline and paint thinner. That’s why the bones are so clean. He made our job easier, says the coroner grimly. A terrible joke. Do I laugh or choke? His internal organs are shriveled black charcoal lumps; his ribs were delicate and turned to ash in the fire. What remained of this man is a black, crumbling shell, a twisted charcoal monument to pain and suffering with a pedestal made of cold steel.
He smells like barbecue. A charcoal briquette of bad steak. No, hamburger. I’m losing it. Someone pipes up, “Oh, it’s lunchtime!” And with that, the show’s over.
I strip off my gear with the guys. We try some small talk as the elevator goes up, but it disintegrates quickly. Like ash. I still see the skull wreathed in charcoal. It’s wrong that the sun is shining and the sky is a cheerful blue.
For about a week, I have been thinking. I am starting to understand what we sacrifice when we choose to be doctors. We make a choice to be superhuman, or inhuman. Who are we, those who choose medicine, that we are so messed-up and so moved by a fiery sense of purpose, of sacrifice? We will sacrifice parts of our humanity, the comfortable lack of death and decay facilitated by modern society, our time, our health. How much can we give? I think that’s the question, and the challenge, of medicine. How much can I give before I cannot give anymore? It’s different for each person.
After about a week of thinking, conversations with others, and writing this entry, I don’t feel so burdened or sad or cynical anymore. I feel humanity creep back. It seems more fragile, more important than ever before. Because I know there are so many chances to lose it or throw it away in the future. But now that I know, I’ll take good care of it. I’ll take good care of me.
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