I See Dead People

by JT Ellison

This is an irreverent title for a very serious post, and I chose it specifically to show that sometimes, we need some irreverence to deal with things in our life. Humor heals all wounds, and writing cop novels means I’ve dealt some really off color moments which defuse the tension of the situation at hand. Humor helps with most every circumstance—with nervousness, with fear and tragedy. Thank goodness we have that, at least.

I attended my first autopsy this past weekend. Allow me to amend, I spent a full morning at the Medical Examiner’s office, which meant not one, but four autopsies. Don’t worry, I’m not going to gross you out with freaky details. Not too many, at least. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss some of what I experienced and the way the day is haunting me. There are images seared into my brain now that I’ll never erase.

Names, places and details have all been slightly altered to protect the innocent.

#

I recently received an invitation to attend a postmortem, and I honestly didn’t want to accept. I’ve done a lot of boots on the ground research for my novels, but attending a real post wasn’t something that I’d ever really felt the need to do. There are great virtual autopsies online, and with my truncated pre-med background and subsequent fascination with doctors, I have enough of a familiarity with anatomy that I can manage. I’ve worked with the Manhattan Medical Examiner’s office to get specific details so my Medical Examiner in the book, Dr. Sam Loughley, doesn’t make too many egregious mistakes or misstatements. But I’ve always felt like a fraud. People ask all the time if I’ve attended autopsies, and the answer is always no.

But in the book I’m writing, Sam is a point of view character. So it was time. Plus, I mentioned the invitation in an interview last week, effectively outing myself, which meant culpability. Damn it. After a week of hemming and hawing, I accepted the invitation. We set the day for Sunday.

I dreaded Sunday all week.

#

I didn’t eat Sunday morning. I got a green tea from Starbucks. I figured that was as safe as anything. I was to call when I was in range. It wasn’t a quick drive, so I had plenty of time to think about backing out. I will freely admit to pulling into a gas station and sitting for about ten minutes, getting up the courage to make the call that I was close. Finally berating myself for being a total idiot, I called. I was ten minutes away, and I did my best not to think about what I was about to do. Or rather, I imagined fourteen different scenarios, in which I passed out, threw up, freaked out or otherwise embarrassed myself.

They met me outside, and whisked me in. I’ve been in this particular morgue before for identification of skeletal remains, passed a few spots I recognized, then suddenly, we were in the changing area. I handed over my purse, pulled on tons of protective gear, and grabbed my notebook. The following conversation ensued:

Tech: “She’s going to get blood on that. I’d leave it.” (She being the M.E.)

M.E.: “Hey, I’m pretty neat.”

JT: “She’s just kidding, right?”

Tech and M.E. have small, secretive smiles on their faces, which remain blank. I am certain they are teasing and decide to bring my notebook. My mask is around my neck. My heart is doing double time. I have enough familiarity with panic attacks to know that I’m pushing into the borders of one. I breathe deeply, square breaths.  

JT: “You should probably have the smelling salts ready, just in case.”

M.E.: “You’re going to be just fine. I’ll take good care of you.”

JT: “Seriously. I have no idea about how I’m going to react. I’m not kidding.”

Tech and M.E. realize that I’m quite serious, and make a plan for me.

Tech: “If you start feeling hot, step out. I’ll come and give you a coke or something.”

ME: “Are you ready?”

I swallow, hard, and nod. In we go.

#

It is white, clean, pristine, with shiny stainless steel and a man lying naked to my left. This is not my first dead body, but it is my first unclothed, which is momentarily shocking. My greatest fear is that there will be one of two demos: a man my father’s age, or a child. I immediately see the board says the man is in his 70s. Shit. I realize I’m breathing through my mouth, which isn’t necessary, there’s no real smell. The M.E. checks if I’m okay, and says we have four autopsies this morning. (FOUR? WTF? I only signed up for one. Panic sets in again, then abates. Surely I’m only going to observe one. I can handle this.)

We move further into the morgue. I immediately see a young boy on a gurney further away from the sinks. Nightmare scenario two. I stop cold. The M.E. asks again if I’m okay, tells me not to personalize. There are two more bodies, one woman with blood on her face and a young man with tattoos along his ribcage. I feel the urge to run and not look back. I also have the most absurd reaction—I keep looking for chests to rise, for eyes to open, for bodies to sit up. I’ve got a full-fledged horror film running through my brain—one that never really goes away.

Everyone is waiting for me. The techs are standing at the ready by their bodies. The guests, they call them. All the bodies have been stripped, weighed and measured. Since none of the deaths are criminally suspicious, evidentiary precautions are not in play. Each station is set up with a white board with things written on it like heart, liver, kidneys. I know enough to know that’s for weight measurements of the organs. I am still on my feet, though looking over my shoulder expecting a ghostly white hand to grab me. When we’ve established that I’m not going to barf or bolt, the M.E., who is no nonsense and an excellent teacher, takes me to the computer and we review the cases.

The first step is to cover the details of each individual case. We have an unattended death outside, an unattended possible overdose, a possible suicide, and the child with severe head trauma. I am hugely relieved to learn that his autopsy will be external only, the cause of death was established by the hospital. Thank God for small favors.

We step to the first body, the woman. On go the masks. The M.E. does an external exam, explaining to me in detail what she’s looking for. The woman has marks and scratches on her body, we spend some time determining what they might be. When the M.E. is finished, she nods to the tech, who takes a vitreous fluid level and begins to get femoral blood. I watch rather indirectly, really expecting the gorge to rise, but it doesn’t. So far, so good. A block is placed between the woman’s shoulder blades – not under the neck like we see on TV. I understand why moments later.

We’re standing in a spot when I can see all four bodies when the tech makes the Y-incision on the woman. This is quick, brutal and astounding. The pristine whiteness is replaced by glorious Technicolor. Things start happening very fast. We move to the next body, the probable heart attack, and start the external exam. Then on to the suicide. I know I’m not supposed to be personalizing, but I can’t help it. I feel horrible for these people. I am angry at the man who decided life wasn’t worth it. I feel sorry for the heart attack. I worry that I will look similar to the woman if I’m ever in her place. I am over-personalizing. I stare into a chest cavity, focus on the ribcage, and knock it off.

That’s when I realize I will be attending all four autopsies, because they are done simultaneously. Oh.

We work in circles, moving from station to station. There are unexplained noises, and odd smells. Mostly alcohol, wafting from the bodies. There is a pattern to our concentrics. This is a team effort, a coordinated, choreographed dance. When the breastplate is off, the M.E. looks at the heart in situ, then the organs start to come out. The bone saw didn’t bother me at all, I’ve got contractors in the house laying a floor upstairs and it sounds no different. It is easier when I don’t have to look at their faces. When the skull is off, the tech yells what I think is “Head” and we go back to look at the brain before it too is removed.

Autopsy is a surprisingly physical job. It takes more than one person to move the bodies around on the table. It takes strength to get through bone.

We move on to dissection. Each organ must be looked over thoroughly for signs that the death isn’t what they think. I see things I’ve only read about—cholesterol, plaque, nodules, cysts—and make plans to lead a healthier life. Microsurgery suddenly makes sense. I’m going to stop with the description here and save a bunch of it for my books, but suffice it to say, it’s fascinating.

And bloody. Biggest misconception I had about autopsies—I always envisioned them bloodless, sterile, clean. Yeah. Not. The tech wasn’t kidding when she said I’d get blood on my notebook. It actually sat quietly on the counter awaiting my return—I really didn’t need it to take notes. Sometimes, visuals do all the talking for you. This would have been a bit different if any of the bodies had lost blood at the scene, of course, but these were all intact.

The boy was last, and that was as hard as you could imagine.

#

We wrapped at 11:30. We’d been at it for three hours straight. One of the techs asked me if I’d had fun. I told her fun wasn’t exactly the appropriate word, though it was a fascinating, enlightening and educational morning.

Remember the humor? There were some really funny moments, both during and after. A nicked aorta that had people rushing around for ladles. The M.E. getting the band wrong on one of the songs – it was David Essex’s ROCK ON, not New Kids on the Block. Listening to AC/DC while watching a liver dissection. Realizing when we finished that I was starving, and assuaging my hunger with Milk Duds. Going to Waffle House after and needing my bacon very, very well done. Freaking out a friend when I overshared about how to differentiate tissue samples from the lobes of the lungs. The rest goes in the books. Hey, a girl’s got to have a plan, right?

I’m so glad I finally broke down and did this. Sam will be a much, much richer character from here on out. And I was so proud of myself for actually making it through without problems. I’m still haunted by visions; I doubt they’ll ever leave me. But I did it.

I will end with this. My own spiritual path has evolved from the dogma I learned as a child. I find beauty in all religions, can see that what I was taught isn’t the only path to God. But what of the soul? We are all the same inside. Organs designed to function in very specific ways, our body structure and development meant to be exact, past the point of similarity. So there is something that makes us all unique, special, different. Ourselves. Id. Ego. Superego. Soul. Spirit. Essence.

Me.

I felt God in the room, whoever he or she may be. I dare anyone to look into the human body and not believe that there is some kind of grand plan. The design, the way we fit together, is stunningly beautiful. Couple that with the knowledge of our differences, and trust me, I’ve been struggling with some weighty philosophical discourse ever since.

So tell me, ‘Rati – have you faced your worst fears lately? Is there someplace you’d like to go that you don’t think you could manage? Any research you’ve skipped over?๏ปฟ

Wine of the Week: Vihno dos Mortos, Portugal, which has a fascinating history.

65 thoughts on “I See Dead People

  1. Laura Jane Thompson

    I'm really impressed by anyone who can attend a live autopsy (or even watch one on video). I can't do it.

    I've attended many animal (horse) necropsies, which is extremely brutal. The first time I saw one, I was shocked to see the vet pull out what looked like a butcher knife to make the initial cut. Horse hide is very tough. But seeing an animal cut open is very different from watching a human autopsy. I can't even watch the fake ones on NCIS.

    You are extremely brave to have gone through that, and you brought home the emotional aspects very vividly. I would have reacted the same way: Picturing my mother, father, grandfather, nephew, in place of those on the tables.

  2. Chuck

    Whoa, JT. Yowza. As a former peacetime soldier, I have seen a few things. Bone through skin (my own!). I saw a person after his own suicide by hanging. I saw the remains of a poor fellow who got his head between a 5-ton truck and a loading dock. When I was 13, I saw a roadie fall 50 feet at a KISS concert. He died. But I have never seen an autopsy, and I'm not quite sure I could handle it. All of the aforementioned items I saw, but none by choice. They were each their own heart-rending moments, all of which haunted me later. But to willingly walk into an autopsy…or better yet, FOUR of them. Well, my hat's off…wait…check that…my skull cap's off to you! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I have been in Greece and am looking forward to digging into THE IMMORTALS.

    No frigging news, but the male ed your pal introduced me to has lunch scheduled with my agent for Nov 2. Agh the suspense.

    You are a brave soul!

  3. Karen in Ohio

    JT, that's taking one for the team! Thanks for sharing your experience.

    The only time I've ever been to the morgue was when I was in college, studying Police Science. Our Investigations teacher took us on a field trip to the morgue and to the Cincinnati detective division (where we saw slides of crime scene shots of the victims of the Cincinnati Strangler). We didn't see any autopsies, but we did see the drawers, and the rooms, sans visible bodies. The single most pervasive memory, lasting 40 years now, was the smell of decay (a body pulled from the river that had been there a good while) overlaid by the smell of the ozone lamps. Even now, if I so much as get a whiff of dead mouse it takes me right back to that evening in the morgue. I can't imagine working with that day in and day out.

    It was great to meet you at the Books by the Banks! Hope you signed a lot of books! Your table was sure busy every time I went past.

  4. Shizuka

    I kept picturing the rush with the ladles and then a soup pot for the blood to go into.
    I tried to stop the train of thought after that, but wasn't so successful.
    Your ability to see beauty and the spiritual here is pretty amazing.

    If it's not too personal a question — why did you have to identify skeletal remains?
    And how does one do that?

  5. Debbie

    I'm probably about to make a few enemies here but in my final year of highschool I disected a cat. I always feel the need to justify myself when I say that, explaining that there are dozens anesthetized daily and that these ones have help people learn…that they weren't put to sleep for disection. But I digress.
    The teacher told us that there were three cats, we'd be working in pairs, the rest of the class would disect another animal, and he would take the first six hands he saw. Mine shot up like Hermionie Granger and then I looked around…five other hands. Embarrassed or mortified,? …I'm still not sure.

  6. Becky LeJeune

    Wow, JT! You've got more guts than I do. I got to shadow the officers when I did my internship with Metro Forensics back home. We went to the morgue for fingerprints and lunch. It was a little weird eating at the morgue, I gotta say!

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Haven't been to a morgue yet, JT. But I've been with a person at the moment her soul left and it was eerie, surreal. I kept expecting her to open her eyes.

    Did you have that feeling in the room?

    I don't know if I could stand an autopsy. I might be able to separate emotion in that context, but am not sure. When I did PR for a hospital, I had to escort a photographer to a couple of surgery shoots. I did fine with most of them, but the 12-year-old girl with sinus surgery got to me and I had to leave the room. The doc stuck a tube into the girl's nose and it went in and in and in — probably a couple of feet at least. For some reason that just set me off.

    As far as facing fears lately? I'm thinking. Most of them aren't fears as much as self-doubts and those are most often dispelled by just doing the work, damnit <g>.

  8. Zoรซ Sharp

    A fascinating experience, JT. The forensic side of death has never really come into my books, but Sam is such an important character in your series that I can SO understand why you want to know everything about the job she does and the emotions it engenders.

    Bravo, a beautifully written piece.

  9. JT Ellison

    John, you're welcome.

    Laura, I don't know if I could handle a necropsy, of any kind of animal. I can't even watch the PETA ads on TV with the sad, sick animals. Kills me. So the respect is entirely mutual. But the fake ones on TV are so far from real – there are no sheets, no politeness. People don't look asleep. But how would you show the real thing? I think leaving at least a few things up to the imagination is a good idea.

  10. JT Ellison

    *My skullcap's off to you*

    Okay, Chuck, you made me giggle – that was pretty good. I'm the same way – I've seen things I shouldn't have in my life, but nothing like the scale of what you experienced. So… thank you for your service, because we need more men and women like you! And keep hanging in. The market is just brutal right now.

  11. JT Ellison

    Karen, it was super to meet you too! Thanks for coming by and introducing yourself. It's always so cool meeting the 'Rati faithful!

    That sounds like some field trip… the morgue I was in has a separate room for decomp bodies, so the smell is completely contained. We went in there, and it wasn't bad – I think the folks at this morgue are incredible with their cleanliness and attention to detail, but there were a few flies in there. Impossible to stop larvae from hatching, some is so microscopic. But thankfully no scents are really following me home – nothing that's worse than my cat box, at least. Ugh!

  12. JT Ellison

    Shizuka, that aortic blood is necessary for samples, so they grabbed a white container and were able to save enough of it to put in the jars to test. It was the only moment that was out of control, yet it was all still well in hand. The skeletal remains were part of research, I didn't have the guts to do an autopsy, but a skull and several bones had been found, and that related to the story line in the book. I was working with a homicide detective and a forensic odontologist on the research and they invited me along to watch while the odontologist and the anthropologist determined if they were recent of historical. It turned out to be recent, and the case was solved later in the year. It was a great start on my forensic education.

  13. JT Ellison

    Debbie, I think you'd only make enemies here if you admitted to staking and killing a cat before dissecting it. High school science class doesn't count. (Though I admit, there's no way in hell I would have put up my hand. I had a hard enough time with my frog.)

  14. JD Rhoades

    Wow. Really fascinating. Thanks JT.

    But I probably shouldn't have read that right before lunch. I guess Italian is out….

  15. JT Ellison

    Becky, I think that was the biggest surprise of all, that I was hungry and ABLE to eat afterward. I felt such guilt. I know that's crazy, but it's true.

  16. Ev

    Wow, thank you for this super interesting and highly personal/reflective post. Lots to think about and mull here. I do try to do things that scare me–but compared to what you do, I am a wimp. Your end comments were, I think, poignant and true.

  17. JT Ellison

    Pari, I don't know. I felt great confusion, and like I said, anger and sorrow. I didn't stop to think that it might be theirs instead of mine, but looking back, that is entirely possible. I wish I had a friend of mine who's sensitive to ghosts with me, maybe she could have explained things properly. Since there were the newly dead, yes, there was something lingering. But that might have simply been my overactive imagination.

  18. JT Ellison

    Dusty, I made a crack that I was probably going to go vegetarian for the rest of the week, and the M.E. told me I couldn't let this put me off my food. Another one of those humorous moments…

  19. JT Ellison

    Ev, one of my biggest fears is of heights. I told my husband last night, if I can do this, I think I can manage the Empire State Building. I'm hardly feeling invincible, exactly the opposite, but I think this was a catalyst to help me overcome some of my deep seated fears, too. I don't want to be held back anymore.

  20. toni mcgee causey

    I have a difficult time with the fake ones on TV. No way would I be in there for the real deal. Kudos, JT, for conquering that demon. And thank you for the specific information that we don't normally see.

  21. JT Ellison

    Louise, in irony only apparent in our worlds, Sam's opening scene that I'd written BEFORE I went was about an older man who'd died unattended of a heart attack. I didn't even have to rewrite, just insert. And again, I want to be careful, because while now I know these things, and parts upset me and parts didn't, I still don't want to turn off my readers by giving them too much. A delicate balance, as always. Greg Rucka did an amazing piece yesterday about research, about how it's an iceberg on the page, and how we sadly can't unlearn the things we see. So, so true.
    http://io9.com/5661251/

  22. Diane McAndrew

    Great post JT!! You really made the experience come alive for all of us readers. Love your books for that very reason as well!

    I have been fortunate (unfortunate for some I suppose) to view an autopsy. (I was a Grand Juror for my county and as such we were able to experience some really amazing things…autopsy/morgue, county jail, police helicopter ride-along, patrol car ride-along, etc.) As with you, I wasn't sure how I would react but didn't expect to fair as well as I did. I found that as the process went along I became quite fascinated by it all. We were also able to visit the decomp room..ugh..wasn't a fan of it at all. The last thing we viewed was the boiling room. This room caused me great distress and I won't go into the gruesome details. The one thing I will say is that I will never, ever be able to boil a chicken again! My imagination just won't let me forget that room…the sights, the smells, the process! All-in-all thought, it was a great experience and has given me some special insight that I am now using within my first novel.

  23. Dudley Forster

    Great job JT. I find it so interesting that most of us view looking at the insides of our bodies as something gross. What is gross is what can be done to the body, but not the body itself. I had a friend who was just out his residency and I asked why he wanted to be a doctor, he said at first it was the science, but in med school he saw the beauty and complexity of the human body and he wanted to defend that beauty.

    I took an A & P class in college and we worked on cadavers. Of course, these were embalmed and drained of blood, but we were still working inside them to identify the anatomical features. Iโ€™m sure it is not as bad as watching an autopsy. I think I could handle that, he says with cracking macho bravado. But no kids NO! NO! NO! Never going to happen. One place I want to go and fear to go at the same time is a body farm. It would be very helpful to understand stages of decomp, to smell the smells and see the insects. I would expect to get sick but the experience would be worth it.

    One place I have been that is very scary is Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Walla Walla is known for taking the tough prisoners from other states. Just going through the process to get in is scary. When I head those doors clang shut I shuddered. Walking by the cells of men who had murdered or raped was so chilling. Then we went into solitary /protective confinement. I knew there were a couple of child molesters in there, not which ones, but that they were there, it was even more chilling and not a little nauseating. We got to talk to a couple of convicted murders; one had been there a long time. The talk was interesting, but the first rule we were told is inmates lie. If you get a chance I highly recommend visiting a penitentiary.

  24. Ev

    >>>I'm hardly feeling invincible, exactly the opposite, but I think this was a catalyst to help me overcome some of my deep seated fears, too. I don't want to be held back anymore. <<<

    It's weird how facing morality can make a person realize that rather then preserving or protecting life, fear just kills you while you're still living. I'm working on a series right now where fear and facing fear are constant underlying themes–and I as I told my husband: "Ack–yet another way my writing doubles as therapy."

    I look forward to hearing more about the heights you conquer–figuratively and literally.

    All the best,
    Ev

  25. JT Ellison

    Diane – how cool to be on a grand jury! I've never even been called to jury duty, more's the pity.

    I had to laugh about your boiled chicken. Yes, there are some really icky parts of the morgue, that's for sure. But what's funny – I can't eat meat with bones or skin. AND I can't debone. I have to buy chicken breasts, and I can't touch them. The ME offered up a liver for me to touch and all I could think about was how I don't do meat well. I politely declined.

  26. JT Ellison

    Dudley, the reason I didn't go to med school was the damn cadavers – and now I see I would have been fascinated, not grossed out. Such a shame to be held back in life because of fear.

    I've never done the penitentiary gig, though it's been offered. I face evil down every day on the page, but having to look it in the eye and hear it talk … even I have my limits.

  27. JT Ellison

    Ev, that's it exactly. It's the sex after a funeral phenomenon, we need to remind ourselves that we are alive. Now, I'll never go so far as to like spiders, or let a tarantula anywhere near me (sorry, Pari!) so I guess there are some limits to mortality-induced bravery.

    Your work sounds fascinating. Any time we can put ourselves in our writing, it's enhanced. So keep it up!

  28. Debbie

    Dusty, I've never had a TMI moment, not even at a table but the mental image your lunch conjured up…well close!
    JT, I've been to the Royal Alex theater before I'd ever heard of wu. I had such a strong urge to touch the walls and the wood and a sense of the past, but tangible. An atmosphere of the past, touching and interacting with now. I've come to understand the experience of course and it has given me a whole new avenue to persue.

  29. Dudley Forster

    JT – You and my wife – arachnophobia to the max. Even though crabs are not arachnids and she loves crab she has to have the legs off the body to eat one. Now me, I loved spiders as a kid and I still do. I even had a pet black widow when we lived in San Antonio. I have wanted a pet red legged tarantula for years, but then my wife would move out and …

    In defense of my eight legged friends, Iโ€™ll tell what I tell my wife. if it werenโ€™t for spiders we would all be dead in a matter of months. They are the dominant terrestrial predator, with an estimated 2 million per acre in meadows, more in wetlands and forests. Without our spider buddies the insect population would explode, crops would be destroyed and the ecological balance would be so thrown out of whack humans would become extinct in a very short time. So itโ€™s okay to not want spiders in your home or have a cute little tarantula near you, but remember they are on our side. Oh and I have a profile pic of a close-up of a nifty tarantula, but now I wonโ€™t use it. See I can be a sensitive guy.

    As for the penitentiary gig, it was hard to look evil in the face, but now it has a real one. You read and write about the fear and terror of victims, but I think a lot of people, including me, think that wouldn't be me, I wouldn't act like that, but looking at the real thing, even behind bars brings such new light to victimology and how scary evil really is.

    Sex after funerals? Really? I thought that was more of an urban myth, I must live a sheltered life.

    Pari โ€“ Do you have a pet tarantula? If so, please post some pics.

  30. Dudley Forster

    Debbie – Not another hater! Come on no one else going to stand up for our eight legged friends? It is too quiet in here, nothing like a little autopsy and spider talk to liven things up.

  31. Marie-Reine

    Really great post, JT – love all the comments, too.

    A part of my job (before having to take disability leave) was to help our medical students handle anatomy lab and reassure them that they would all pass. Of course in order to do that I felt the need to actually have some little experience with it. Since I had failed fetal pig anatomy in college, I decided to start with the brain lab rather than the whole body-block course. It was truly surreal. The med students were merciless in their teasing, as they had all been through gross anatomy their first term.

    What impressed me most about each disembodied brain was how each was so very different- in form, shape, color, and size. It helped my credibility a lot to take these sorts of courses, but what really surprised me was the students who were impressed by my ability to write a term paper. That was the most difficult problem for some of them who had to take courses where essays were required. Over the years several students told me that they chose to study medicine because they could never write a thesis. They were scared to death of writing!

  32. Marie-Reine

    Dudley, we have a huge brown tarantula who lives in a burrow outside my bedroom door. We don't see him very often, but he was out yesterday. Hope he makes it through the mating season!

  33. Debbie

    Admittedly there is something cute about a tarantula but I dunno…. Could I be brave enough to pat one without dropping someones precious pet? Are they as soft as they look? And no, I don't want to know how many live in the meadow as I laugh and walk through the autumn leaves with friends next weekend. One of my very few hear no evil, see no evil moments.
    Just for the record, there are images of body farms on-line. Couldn't find anything about a boiler room though so um…what is one? (If somebody could enlighten me with a link if it's too sensitive to explain here. Thanks.) Oh, and what's the reason for a decomp room? )Sorry, but this seems a reasonable place to ask and I'm actually holding back a little!)

  34. Annelise Ryan

    Wow, you brought back so many memories of my own first observed autopsy. The body was that of a teenaged boy who had drowned and been in the water for two months before he surfaced. My thoughts about how I would deal with it, despite being a nurse and seeing live people cut open in the OR plenty of times, mirrored yours. My biggest concern was the smell and appearance of the body, but he'd been in cold water the whole time and he looked relatively normal as dead bodies go. As for the smell, it was mostly a river water smell before he was opened, and then I was surprised to discover that the inside body smells weren't much different than the smells of people opened in the OR. That thought instantly became a first line for a book in my mind and it was the genesis for my current series, which features a nurse turned deputy coroner.

    Like you, I was struck not only by how well choreographed the process was, but by how respectful and professional the morgue workers all were. It was an intriguing and educational experience, but it's not something I think I could do full time, unlike my character. It's much easier on the page.

  35. JT Ellison

    Marie-Reine, the brains were utterly fascinating, and I think the part that really caused my crisis of … well, not faith, but spirituality. They're all different, but exactly the same. Really wild stuff.

    Debbie, the boiler room is where they boil flesh off bones so they can do comparisons for things like knife marks. Patricia Cornwell has a great Kay Scarpetta book (BODY FARM, maybe?) that talks in detail around knife marks in bone that's a must read if this piques your interest. The decomp room is for decomposing bodies, ones that have been unattended for multiple days, in water, etc.

    And Dudley, I'm just going to let all that slide. Spiders = UGH!!!! : )

  36. JT Ellison

    Annelise, thank you for sharing that! I think our imaginations love to run away with us, and we've been told what to expect so often through the fiction medium that sometimes things get blown out of proportion, smells, especially. But yes, I can imagine it would be very, very similar to surgery. One of the guests had had some work done, so I got to see that as well, which was fascinating.

  37. Marie-Reine

    – "Marie-Reine, the brains were utterly fascinating, and I think the part that really caused my crisis of … well, no faith, but spirituality. They're all different, but exactly the same. Really wild stuff."

    JT, such an intriguing comment about spirituality – brains are definitely the same, yet easily distinguishable. At the time I was studying neuro and doing the brain lab, I was also studying theology, as were two of the medical students in my house. My divinity friends could not – would not – listen to my excited "revelations" via the brain lab.

  38. Katherine Howell

    Hi JT,
    great post! I went to a day of autopsies in my paramedic training, and they were the first bodies I'd seen, so to walk in and watch bodies being stripped and washed and prepped then cut open was quite confronting. Once the scalp was pulled down over the face it was a little easier, and to see the organs and how they all fit in there so neatly was fascinating. We also knew that whatever we faced here, we were going to see worse on the road, so it was good preparation. (And has been useful for my books as well.) We were starving when we finished too! Went straight to Mcdonalds.
    cheers,
    Katherine.

  39. Debbie

    "Come on no one else going to stand up for our eight legged friends?"
    Eight legs? …I think they can stand up for themselves!

  40. JT Ellison

    Marie-Renie, we obviously need to have a drink and chat. Once you've seen the medulla dissected things do change.

    Katherine, that would be good training. I can't even imagine the things you've seen – thank you for all you do!

    Ugh – Debbie, again with the spiders? I'm going to have bad dreams… creepy, crawly, fangy, leggy dreams……

  41. KDJames

    Wow, JT. Took a lot of guts (har) to do that. As far as incorporating it into your writing, I think the emotions would have a greater impact then the graphic physical details (please and thank you very much).

    I've only ever seen one dead person. My dad. It was at the funeral home and he had been "processed" or whatever you call it. It wasn't as upsetting as I had thought it would be. Comforting, actually.

    I come from farm people and I've been present for various butchering events (chickens, pigs) and was never grossed out. Somehow I missed the frog dissection thing in HS (either that or blocked it from my memory). But in 8th grade we watched a film of an open heart surgery. I thought it was pretty cool. One boy in class passed out toward the beginning of it. Turned out his dad was the surgeon (the reason we were able to watch the film). Guess it was too personal for him.

    My DD's boyfriend is in med school at LSU and on the first day they got their DB (dead body). I had to ask her to please stop telling me what they were doing to it each week. As someone mentioned above, he finds the examination/study of it to be fascinating and not at all disturbing.

    Dudley, I toured Soledad prison way back when. My then-husband and I were vacationing in SF and drove down along the coast to visit his uncle, who was an assistant warden. They'd just had a major uprising/riot so the place was on total lockdown and he determined we'd be safe enough to go in. I was in my mid-twenties and four months pregnant with my first child. I won't repeat the muttered remarks I overhead or describe the looks I received. We were told to walk down the center of the corridors and not to touch anything or get too close to the bars of the cells. The tension and negative energy and just pure crazy rage in that place (from the prisoners AND the guards) were palpable. Had I known enough to realize how scary it would be, I'm not sure I would have agreed to go in. But I'm glad I did. One of the most sobering and memorable experiences of my life.

    Spiders. Geez. I'm fine with the concept of them. Sort of. So long as they're outside and out of sight. But if they venture into my house, they're goners. That is, once I work up the courage to kill them…

    Thanks for broaching scary topics and creeping us all out, JT. Good work. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  42. pari noskin taichert

    Dudley,
    Our tarantula is a bit of a dud; she just hangs out in her nest all day and only comes out when we feed her crickets. But we've got a great leopard gecko.

    When I first got together with my husband, he had two pet tarantulas, several pet black widows, 4 emperor scorpions, a wonderful box turtle named Isabella, and five snakes.

    Now we've got the gecko, tarantula, a cranky old bull snake and two dogs. The black widows must stay outside!

  43. KDJames

    Pari, you know I love you, right? But I am never coming to visit you.

    My son once won an iguana. At the state fair, playing one of those games where you toss a ball and try to get it to drop into one of a grouping of glass jars. The openings of the jars are smaller than the diameter of the ball. Really. It's impossible. No one wins that game. My son did it on the first toss. He had a choice of 50 billion free ride tickets or an iguana. He was twelve.

    FYI, in case this ever happens to you, iguanas love kale. And the grocery store cashiers will ask you, every single time, "What IS this stuff?"

  44. Dudley Forster

    KD – I'd imagine being a woman going into a male penitentiary would be difficult, given the comments and leers you'd receive. Not sure I'd have the guts.

    Pari & JT — Pari, when JT is at LCC are you going to invite her over for a meet the pets tea? JT I'm sure y'all will accept, keeping with Southern etiquette. Yeah, okay now I am just being mean. <g>

    Pari – Leopard geckos are so beautiful and geckos are very cool, as long as the don't try to sell you insurance. <g> Only had one snake, my daughter found a grass snake and gave it a very happy home. I like snakes, but never kept anything larger than the small grass snake, for some reason I couldn't get past having to feed them mice. I have had aquariums over the years and it never bothered me to feed goldfish to oscars or knife fish. Even if I kept snakes no way would I be this guy. http://animal.discovery.com/videos/fatal-attractions-man-with-40-snakes.html#mkcpgn=fb3

  45. Marie-Reine

    Very interesting website about the Vihno dos Mortos, and just in time for El Dรญa de los Muertos. But I don't know if my French DNA might just rebel with their overactive glucosinolate taste-receptor genes or something. Anyway, Kendall's chardonnay wine label is out on the Power Paws Assistance Dogs fund raising campaign, so we're stuck drinking that for awhile– poor us. Just posted a photo of it on his blog. It's cute. They used his sweet puppy photo that was on a calendar a few years ago.

  46. Marie-Reine

    Oups, sorry for the non sequitur – Kendall is my service dog. http://reenharringtoncarter.blogspot.com/ We also have a 22 lb. Maine Coon cat; a little feral kitty that we adopted 3 years ago; along with a bobcat who hunts in our back yard, suns on our patio, and sleeps in our trees (I'm a little uncomfortable with that); an Arizona coral snake that came into the house one day (less comfortable with that than the bobcat on the patio); and of course the big brown tarantula who lives in the burrow by the bedroom door.

  47. Allison Brennan

    I'm so sorry I missed this yesterday JT! What an incredible, vivid post, and an amazing experience.

    When I was 12, my favorite show was QUINCY and I wanted to be a forensic pathologist. When I was 13 I dissected a fetal pig and thought, ugh, no. So when I viewed an autopsy two years ago, I was a little wary. I was surprised that I disconnected. I was with another writer and she was all eager and interested and asking questions, and I stayed back and observed. She then nearly fainted, and I was fine. (the supervisor said that people with low blood pressure sometimes have difficulties observing–which I thought was interesting.)

    My victim was a stabbing victim, an unidentified homeless guy. All three techs were women, and I learned that there were more female pathologists in Sac County than male. The decomp room didn't bother me; what bothered me most was the cold storage where the bodies were kept before and after autopsy. The rows of sheets with feet, stacked three high. (all mechanical tables–press a button and they come down.) That was something I will never forget.

    What I learned was that sometimes we don't know what we're capable of until we face it. I could have been a forensic pathologist, I wasn't freaked out or squeamish. And I finally understood what cops have told me about compartmentalizing. I had my first hint of that when my oldest daughter was 2 and went in for major surgery. I didn't cry or get upset, it was like I was a robot, extremely calm and focused, until after the surgery when I found out she was fine and in recovery, when I totally broke down and cried for an hour.

  48. JT Ellison

    KD, I've never been one for graphic details. I think we can accomplish a lot more with suggestive language. That's why I wrote THE COLD ROOM, a book with no blood. A fun challenge, actually. You have my greatest respect for doing the prison trip – I just don't have the guts. Har.

    And I second that – Pari, you know I love you, but I'm leaving after dinner ; )

  49. JT Ellison

    Mary, I've spent all week feeling the same way. : )

    Marie-Reine – wow, that is so cool! I wish I could drink whites, they give me a raring migraine.

    Allison, the M.E. told me she can usually tell who's going to be fine with it. She spent so much time assuring me that I finally had to break down and believe her, and she was right. It's funny what stays with us – one of mine was the evidence room. The little personal details of a person's last moments… that was hard.

  50. Dudley Forster

    Apparently, thereโ€™s not going to be a post today ๐Ÿ™ . So Debbie & Pari shall we pickup our discussion of spiders and other cool pets? Just kidding JT.

    Marie-Reine โ€“ So tell us more about Kendall. How did you get him? How old? Is he a full golden?

  51. Marie-Reine

    Hi Dudley,

    Kendall is a full golden retriever He'll be 4 on Dec. 17. He's so amazing. I got him from Power Paws in Scottsdale, where he was raised on a golf course by a golf pro's daughter. That's why I have to take him to golf courses for his vacations– Rancho Mirage last year, Palm Desert this year. He likes that.

    His puppy raiser trained him for two years before I had to go to servy dog boot camp in Scottsdale to learn how to keep up his training. When I passed boot camp – a horror that deserves a book if I ever get to it. Kendall and I were actually paired up after the end-of-week-one midterm. There were 6 dogs and 3 people in our class. Then on Friday we were paired, and the unpaired dogs went home with their puppy trainers. We got to take ours back to our hotels and try to bond with puppies who'd rather be swimming and golfing in Scottsdale. The last week was spent going out to dinner, movies, museums etc. (I know… sooooo awful) and trying to get them behave in public. You'd think they'd just do it, because they'd been rehearsing for two years, but it doesn't work that way. They have to learn that you are in charge, and you have to learn how to give them the correct commands in just the right way, how to take care of them and the real biggie – how to keep other people from patting, hugging, talking to, and otherwise distracting them from their work. Everyone wants to do these things!

  52. Marie-Reine

    Heidi Weiskopf, his puppy raiser-trainer, designed the brilliant pool he is swimming in (if interested see photo on blog url posted above).

  53. pari noskin taichert

    Seems like everyone is doing just fine w/o a Sat. post. I suspect Alex is at BCon and just spaced it. That's fine since JT's post was so important anyway.

    As to inviting Ms. JT. I'd love to make her dinner . . . but I bet we'll both be pretty frazzled after LCC. She's invited later in the week though. Of course, I'll be getting ready for Passover by then.

    Dudley, I've always loved geckos. When I lived in Hong Kong, we had one that lived in our room and kept the mosquitoes at bay. He was green, sleek and magnificent.

  54. Marie-Reine

    Heh, I hope Cornelia's having a GREAT time, but wish she'd come back soon, so I won't be tempted to post comments about my fucking dog!

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