Still Lips Still Whisper

Meet Dr. Michael Graham, the city medical examiner. He hears dead people.

Because Brown started in the summer, his odds of working on a decomposed body were very high. The odor's strength grows in the heat and the dead smack the living with a pungent smell, punishment for all the times they were ignored by passersby.

Brown says that he started mentally writing a resignation letter, minutes after enduring the stomach-churning smell and sight of his first bug-laced floater: "Thank you for the opportunity, but..."

It wasn't as if Brown was a stranger to the dead. He came to the medical examiner's office already comfortable around dead people, well-versed in the ritual of preparing them for wakes and burials.

Administrator of the medical examiner's office Baxter Leisure:  "When people call you wanting tours, they're looking for the Freddy Krueger stuff. They want to see bodies and they want to see blood. And we just don't do that."
Jennifer Silverberg
Administrator of the medical examiner's office Baxter Leisure: "When people call you wanting tours, they're looking for the Freddy Krueger stuff. They want to see bodies and they want to see blood. And we just don't do that."
Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Phillip Burch: "Most of the people we see are people who die strangely. His or her life may be very warped."
Jennifer Silverberg
Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Phillip Burch: "Most of the people we see are people who die strangely. His or her life may be very warped."

He started out working in a funeral home, but it became an endless routine of embalming bodies, wakes, burials and long, slow rides in a hearse, then starting the whole process anew. He needed a challenge and the funeral home didn't satisfy his intellectual cravings. When a police officer told Brown about the medical examiner's office, Brown thought he was a perfect fit.

He contacted the office but there weren't any openings. Call back, they said. And so he did. Repeatedly. His fortitude was rewarded and he was given a shot, but he almost walked away after meeting that first floater.

"That lady didn't look real; she didn't look human," Brown says.

His training had left him wholly unprepared for working with the decayed remains. But mixed in with the disgust was a genuine curiosity.

One question kept pestering him at home after that first day, "Oh my God, I wonder what happened?"

But the only way he'd find out the answer was to go back to the body and ask. The next day, he returned to the floater's box.

The floater's box and the floater's autopsy room are separated from the main autopsy room and cooler. Decomposed bodies not only have an overpowering odor, they're a biohazard. The floater's box is a brick icebox that hovers around 15 degrees Fahrenheit, a feeble attempt to stop nature's mission.

The main cooler is kept at a balmy 36 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that helps slow decomposition, but doesn't freeze the body. Doing a postmortem on a frozen body is like cutting a frozen steak with a butter knife.

The floater's autopsy room is a private suite with only one table. In the main autopsy room, up to four postmortems can go on at the same time. But floaters demand undivided attention.

Brown watched as the floater was brought into the room and placed on the lone table. He donned scrubs, gloves, mask and surgical cap. It is an effort to keep the odor off of his own clothes and hair. Just like perfume that lingers after a lovers' tryst, the bitter stench hangs on as a morbid reminder of the inevitable.

Brown was both fascinated and repulsed by the autopsy, but he learned an important lesson: "If I can take this, I can take anything else."

After a decade of working in the medical examiner's office, preparing for an autopsy is like getting ready for bed at night. If the case is a homicide, he will get out evidence bags to prepare for a postmortem. If sexual assault is a possibility, Brown pulls out a rape kit.

The scalpel, bone saw, needle, sutures, syringes and DNA test pads are carefully laid out on a silver tray that sits on top of the bed. He may be asked to saw off a part of the skull for a head autopsy or take out the breastplate for a postmortem exam. He's an extra pair of eyes searching for a bullet that's been fired into a body.

He's always looking -- for clues and a deeper meaning to his workday routine.

"Maybe I make a small difference that no one knows, figuring out how Great Grandma died," he says.

Brown is a gentle man, but gaze deep into his face, look behind the wire glasses and past the sweet smile, and sadness colors his eyes. He isn't immune to the tragedy that sometimes surrounds him.

"I really get upset when there are kids and elderly people; I can't imagine someone killing an elderly person or child."

A sign hangs on the swinging door that separates the autopsy room from the long, narrow hallway where empty beds wait, ready for a visit from the recent dead. The sign predates Brown, but could have been written by him.

"Caution -- human beings here. Handle with care."

Brown not only talks to the dead, he feels the pain of the living left behind.

If a family member comes down to the medical examiner's office to identify a body, one that's already been examined by a doctor and photographed, Brown reaches back to his funeral training and pulls out a hairbrush. He unzips the body bag, smoothes matted and tangled hair, covers scars, wipes away dirt and dried blood left on the face, and shuts eyes.

His caring ways are directed at the living and the dead.

For the living: "It is bad enough that they have to come in here."

And for the dead: "I try to make them look as close to natural as I can."

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