16 September, 2005

My Exorcism, Chapter Three ~ "Blind Faith, A Tragedy"

It was never about the autopsies for me. That is the “interior business,” in the most pragmatic sense of the term - inside the body, inside the autopsy suite. I learned a vast amount from assisting with autopsies, unquestionably, and I enjoyed the interior work for that reason.

Despite that, for me, it was always about the scene. The investigation.  The puzzle-solving.
From the time each call came in, my brain shifted gears, and didn’t shift back until some undetermined time after the scene investigation ended. I found that trying to shut off my mind after a 40-hour weekend was next to impossible. I also found that, despite the sleep deprivation, most of the time I didn’t want to shut it off.

It is still not entirely shut off in this sense. I still don’t want it to be. It has had so much of an impact, that while I do not usually initiate or encourage conversations about my scene work, it has profoundly affected who I am, and in the most private of ways. I don’t think most people who know me – even those few with whom I am very close - understand this.

I determined very early in my career that it is crucial not to take any scene for granted, no matter how simple or complex it appeared. Along those lines, another crucial lesson learned was that while it is imperative for a good investigator to listen and give credence to the opinions of others present (police, paramedics, family, friends, witnesses), the investigator must ultimately use his or her own expertise, sense, and background when applying the cumulative information to the scene at hand. Circumstances of death are not always as they appear. I cannot stress this enough.

Case example:
1) Background: female, early 50s, lived alone, found dead by an adult offspring, house secure. At the time of the report, medical history was unknown. I arrived on scene. There was blood everywhere -or so it seemed- in the master bedroom and bathroom.  Bed, floor walls, furniture were splattered and soaked. A bucket in the bedroom contained more blood – substantially more. Cursory external examination of the body revealed no external signs of trauma. The paramedic presented his interpretation (medical cause of death); the police officer voiced skepticism of this and his own interpretation (suspicious cause and manner of death). After speaking with family, I learned that the medical history included severe, long-term alcohol abuse.
While it is not the investigator’s role to determine final cause and manner of death, it is important to have a pretty clear idea of likelihood. I will say this: the scene looked like a violent homicide. I understood why the investigating officer was uncomfortable. But it was the paramedic who was on target with his medical assessment, and after weighing all of the scene evidence, this was the direction I went. The scene evidence and investigative findings were later backed up by autopsy and pathology findings.

Cause of death: 1a) Gastrointestinal hemorrhage, b) cirrhosis of liver.  2) ETOH abuse.
Manner of Death: Natural

This was an interesting scene. It was also tragic – for all appearances, this seemed to be a woman with loving children, a nice home, and little medical history other than alcoholism, which was certainly enough. I learned that this woman hid her alcoholism from nearly everyone, though her family knew.

So much lurks beneath the surface in each of our lives. We all hide various aspects of our personalities, deepest thoughts, habits, and behaviors. In death, nearly all that we have so carefully sheltered in life is revealed, and in the barest, most unflinching ways.

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