In another time and place in my life, I was a forensic investigator.
For five years during my mid to late twenties, nearly every day was fraught with the intricacies of deaths of the citizens in a county adjacent to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
I chose this. To me, this was the most relevant, logical, and exciting career path for someone with my educational focus. It combined the bulk of my studies, from the criminology/justice studies major to the sociology and anthropology minors, the almost psychology minor, and even the biology, anatomy, physiology I made time to take. When the Delaware County Medical Examiner’s Office accepted my internship application during my senior year undergraduate studies, I was determined to turn the opportunity into more than simply part of my college experience.
The internship and job that followed primarily entailed responding to, investigating, and following up on reported deaths. As an intern, I began by shadowing the investigators, observing autopsies, and reading reports. Procedurally, when a police department, paramedic, 911 operator, or hospital employee contacted the on-call investigator to report a death, the investigator first determined the next appropriate steps.
From the time I was hired and for the majority of my tenure, our office was comprised of four investigators, one medical examiner, one autopsy technician, and one secretary, although this fluctuated to some extent during the last two years I was there. What that means is this: four investigators and one pathologist oversaw all reportable deaths in a county of about half a million residents, and di so twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. The adage that death never takes a holiday is certainly true. Occasionally, death investigators take holidays, but not without coverage.
Delaware County, PA is geographically small and demographically varied. In what ways this is true shall be revealed throughout the cases and experiences disclosed, but it is an important observation, particularly from a girl from rural northeastern Kansas.
The first autopsy I ever witnessed as an intern I will not soon forget.
A brief case history: 37 year old Caucasian female, moderately obese, history of seizure disorder, found dead at home, no external signs of trauma, no suspicious circumstances.
My observations: Adipose tissue (fat) is a brighter yellow than I had imagined. Intestines smell about the way I imagined. The human liver is huge. The right lung is visibly larger than the left lung. The face is peeled back during an autopsy in a very efficient manner to allow access to the skull and brain. (And if done correctly, most people would never know it during a funeral viewing, which still amazes me.) Blood against stainless steel produces a nasty metallic pungency that left me glaring at my kitchen sink for weeks.
Cause of death: Seizure Disorder
Manner of death: Natural
I did not experience nausea, dizziness, or vomiting during or after observing the autopsy. I also did not eat particularly well that evening; of course, my then significant other chose that night to make breakfast for dinner. Eggs and sausage may have been the single worst choice of meals on that day. My sleep was undisturbed that night.
"Grave Wisdom" title credit to Skinny Puppy. Subsequent chapter titles taken from song lyrics of said title.