15 September, 2005

My Exorcism, Chapter Two ~ "Human Storm Lies Barren"

As with the first autopsy, the first scene I attended as an intern is not easily forgotten.

I remember we (the staff) were in the autopsy suite doing the initial external examination of a pedestrian vs. train (the train won, but pedestrian was remarkably intact), when a call came in; an elderly woman was found deceased in her home.

The on-call investigator and I responded to the scene, and arrived to find that the county Criminal Investigation Division (CID) had broken into the home after neighbors reported the telltale foul odor - a concept with which I would become all too familiar.  It was June, and she had been deceased for several days. 

After performing the necessary photography and background work, cursory external examination of the body, search for signs of medication and next of kin information, four of us attempted to remove this bloated woman from her living room chair (where she  had evidently died peacefully) and place her in a body bag.  A CID intern from Penn State was present and attempted to assist; fortunately, three of us were able to handle the decedent after this student bolted out the door to vomit in the back yard.  The investigator from our office used this as bragging rights about me for months thereafter ("CID's guy puked and  our girl didn't").  It was a strange form of flattery, but I appreciated it all the same. 

Cause of death: ASCVD (Arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease)
Manner of death: Natural

I quickly learned that this scene was somewhat typical for a natural death, minus the decomposition factor, which certainly wasn’t unusual but wasn’t the norm, either. In retrospect, it saddens me to think of how many people die alone, and even more so to think about how many of them are not found for days…or even longer. I’m not very sentimental about what happens to the body after death. What is troubling is what the circumstances surrounding someone's death can say about that particular life. Throughout the years, scene after scene, I observed many signs of isolation, and not just advanced decomposition (which can be caused by a number of factors).  Piled-up mail and newspapers, neglected pets, and  spoiled food can provide valuable clues to investigators, but also telling disclosures about an individual’s life...and ultimately, that person's death.

Sometimes people ponder what his or her own funeral might be like: who will attend, what will be said in a eulogy, etc.?  My scene experiences yielded a different perspective; I now think about who will find me, when, and how.  Will I allow my introversion to isolate me to the point of being someone who is not missed for a long period of time?  I cannot rule this out. I know this: if I have any control over the timing or mechanism of my own death (which is doubtful), I will consider who I am leaving behind, and not just people who know me.  I’d like to think I can maintain my independent nature throughout life but still have enough ties to have at least one person who notices an absence or extreme variance in routine should my sudden death occur.  I am also aware that given my propensity to withdraw, it is a very real possibility that should I die at home alone at an advanced age, it will very likely not be noticed quickly. 

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