Saturday, March 9, 2013

Morgue Notes

Laura Joh Rowland (Guest Blogger)

I recently went on a fascinating tour of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Facility.
It was organized by Sisters in Crime and led by Dr. Jonathan Hayes, the Chief Medical Examiner, a brilliant, witty Englishman who is also a mystery novelist. Here are some highlights from his talk:

Dr. Hayes’s specialty is victims of sexual assault. He’s also good at neck dissections. Neck dissection is important in cases of strangulation. The signs can be subtle and easy to miss. His neck dissections are “unparalleled.”

There are about 500 board-certified ME’s in the U.S. Some of the biggest names are “charlatans and sociopaths.”

You have a lot of leeway when writing fiction about what forensic pathologists do. Whatever you say, it will probably reflect something that’s actually done somewhere. Just don’t have the ME’s eat sandwiches while they’re doing autopsies. They really don’t do that.

It used to be that forensic pathologists were people with no social skills, who got squeezed out of other medical fields. Now there are a lot of young people who were inspired by “CSI” and “Bones.” Those shows make forensic science sexy.

Dr. Hayes once worked in Miami, which is “insane” because the crimes are so extreme. In New York a victim might be stabbed once. In Miami, he would be stabbed 20 times, and dismembered, and his head thrown in a washing machine. Miami has a state-of-the-art medical examiner facility. It was built after the Mariel boat lift. So many criminals came over from Cuba and there were so many murders that the city had to rent refrigerator trucks from Burger King to store the bodies. There was a scandal about the Burger King trucks. Result: new facilities were built.

It’s important for the ME to ask questions of the victim’s family, the cops, witnesses. He solves more cases with the telephone than the scalpel.

Some Jews and Muslims object to having their family members autopsied. During a Jewish autopsy, a rabbi observes. He makes sure that all body parts and fluids stay inside the body bag.

When Dr. Hayes first started working as an ME, he contracted tuberculosis. He doesn’t know if it was from doing autopsies or from riding the New York City subways.

After his talk, Dr. Hayes gave us a tour of the morgue. He didn’t show us anything gory. (My friend Shizuka thought it was because he was being respectful of the dead. I thought it was because he didn’t want 20 fainting women on his hands.) He kept peeking in doors, checking on what was inside before he let us look. Everything was extremely clean and orderly. We saw the autopsy tables and tools. They use hedge clippers to break open the ribs. There were also some brains in jars. He said that fresh brains have the texture of Greek yogurt, so they have to be preserved in formaldehyde to make them firm enough to cut and examine. (I could almost hear everybody thinking they’ll never eat Greek yogurt again.) The only thing that smelled bad was the walk-in refrigerator where the bodies are stored. (Dead meat!) We saw bodies covered with sheets. They really do have tags on the toes. The bodies aren’t stored in drawers like you see on TV. They’re on modular, moveable racks. Drawers are too hard to clean. Fluid leaks from the bodies and runs down to the bottom and you can’t get it out and it stinks.

After we finished the tour, we were supposed to go out to dinner, but I didn’t feel like it. (I wonder why.) When I got home and told my husband Marty about the tour, he said, “So 20 women went into the morgue. How many came out?”

Laura Joh Rowland is the author of the the long-running Sano Ichirō mystery series, set in late 17th century Japan, featuring a samurai detective, and a series of historical thrillers in which Charlotte Bronte is the amateur sleuth.


Dorothy Hayes said...

Laura, thanks for the somewhat graphic description, brains in a jar, hmmm. I think I would have skipped dinner too. No kidding grateful for info, I missed that ME trip. And, I'm considering Marty's question as a spring board for my next novel.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, Laura. Good timing: I'll see you f2f at the MWA brunch later today. :)