Still Lips Still Whisper

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

But that's changed over time. While Burch was in medical school, the television show Quincy depicted the medical examiner as a crime-solving doctor with the answers.

"Now TV medical examiners are very intelligent, very attractive young women," Burch says with a laugh.

Jennifer Silverberg
The main autopsy room in the medical examiner's office. Each bed has its own exhaust fan and drainage tray. The scales behind the bed weigh organs.
Jennifer Silverberg
The main autopsy room in the medical examiner's office. Each bed has its own exhaust fan and drainage tray. The scales behind the bed weigh organs.

Dr. Jane Turner stands in the autopsy room, next to a morgue technician and the body of a woman who's been shot. Turner wears a blue scrub shirt and purple scrub pants; her gold choker is the only bit of flash in otherwise utilitarian garb. Her blonde bobbed hair is tucked behind her ears.

Turner deftly cuts a large "Y" into the woman's chest, making slits cleaved on either side of the breast, joining the cuts just below the breastbone, and extending it down the middle of the belly.

While she was a resident, Turner says, "I didn't care to do procedures on patients because I didn't like to inflict pain. But I don't have to worry about that here."

Turner peels back the skin and pulls out the breastbone. Her sparkling blue eyes slowly scan the exposed organs. She finds the bullet. And then something else catches her eye.

"In this particular case, she has some lesions in the heart that are unusual," Turner says. "So I'll put some sections through for microscopy."

Later, she'll study the woman's heart in her office. Looking at someone's tissue under a microscope is both an extremely intimate and distant exercise.

So is the autopsy.

"The autopsy is the ultimate physical exam," Turner tells medical students who cycle through the office for training.

As she performs the external exam, which involves carefully studying the body, she routinely asks: "What do you see?"

Trained eyes like Turner's can often decipher how someone both died and lived simply by looking closely at their skin.

"Some deaths have a certain appearance," she says.

An alcoholic has a "poor nutritional status, they might be thin, jaundiced yellow, they might have scars on the forehead and knees from falling. They often look older than they should for their age."

But not everyone she meets has led a hard life.

With some people, Turner says, "I get a feel that they are nice people. I can't put a finger on it, but maybe it is because of the expression on their face; an old person who smiled a lot and has crow's-feet. Even some young people, you can look at their body and tell they lived a healthy life."

At 38, Turner is still relatively new to her profession. She started in the office four and a half years ago, for a one-year fellowship. She spent most of her time in the city for training.

"I'd go out to the county once a month to cut brains with Dr. Case, she's also a neuropathologist," Turner says, referring to St. Louis County Medical Examiner Mary Case, who is also a medical school professor at St. Louis University.

The fellowship ended but she stayed on as an assistant medical examiner.

Her path to forensic pathology involves much more than just the St. Louis Office of the Medical Examiner. Turner's worked the grisly aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, when she was a resident at the University of Oklahoma Heath Sciences Center.

Turner isn't the only one who's had a brush with human disaster. Graham was in New York on September 11. He was in his hotel near the World Trade Center finishing up his breakfast before he was scheduled to testify in court on a case. Graham felt both planes hit. Unlike Turner, his role was limited to being just one of thousands evacuated from the area.

But Turner spent three weeks in the Oklahoma City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, sorting through the human wreckage. At the time, her two sons were already born. Something spared her from working on any of the tiny bodies pulled from the day care center of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

"I don't know if it was intentional or not, but none of the children came through when I was there. There was one child who was in the morgue and a friend of mine did look at the child but that was very upsetting because both of us had children in day care."

Turner looks at a plaque shaped like the state of Oklahoma hanging on her office wall. Its inscription thanks her for "dedication and outstanding performance above and beyond the call of duty."

Then she says: "It was awesome, in a bad sense, a really bad sense."

Life and death march side-by-side in the medical examiner's office.

It is a place where grabbing a soda from a vending machine requires a jaunt past a body on a gurney. A small radio plays softly. The chief autopsy technician answers the phone at the front desk and patches through the calls.

Down a long hallway, a young patrolman stands to one side of a body stretched out on a gurney. The only part of the body visible from the lobby are the soles of the dead person's shoes. David Brown stands across from the patrolman, on the other side of the gurney. The two men exchange paperwork over the dead man.

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