If you are a fan of Silent Witness or CSI Miami you will have seen many episodes set in mortuaries. On TV they are all sparkly clean, the body almost always has a perfect face so you can recognise them and there is no-one gagging at any smells!. Easy right? You may never have even thought about there being CSI Mortuary Perils. Why would you? It all looks really pleasant doesn’t it!
Well let me set the record straight and tell you what it’s really like, and what perils await us. We are used to being in this environment but sometimes even we can be squeamish!
In the UK we wear gowns, overshoes and gloves during an autopsy and these come in ‘one size fits all’! How helpful, I can almost wrap them around me twice! When I can’t do this inevitably it flaps around like a cape. Normally I don’t have a problem with this as I watch where I walk, but occasionally if I’m distracted or if it’s a busy point in the autopsy I might not being watching what I’m brushing up against as much as I should be. One moment I will always remember is being up close to the slab, turning around and being told I had a piece of brain stuck to my gown where I couldn’t see it! Grim doesn’t even cover it!!!!! Definitely a CSI Mortuary Peril – being covered in body parts!!
This isn’t a joke, we have to take this Peril very seriously as there are victims whom we need to perform an autopsy on who have contagious diseases. As standard we wear full protective gear to protect our clothing from splashes, flicks and any other contact with body fluids/body parts. We can however take this one stage further and wear fully valved face masks to protect us from airborne diseases. I’ve attended a few of these post mortems and obviously comply with the rules; I’m not stupid. However, not only are they very hot to wear while you breath on your face for a girly girl who , you don’t look quite the same after you take it off. The look you were rocking when you left home that morning is not how you will be returning; most of your makeup will now be on the mask!!!
Although I’ve seen more than a variety of ways a person can die or be killed, there are however certain aspects of the examination process that really make me squeamish! Most people in my profession have certain thinks they find unpleasant, and my issue is with eyes. During the autopsy the eyelids are turned inside out to search for petechiae (small red dots formed during strangulation for example). You could say that I didn’t need to look at this point of the autopsy but I’m not that lucky. Being the person with the camera I not only need to look, but get really really close and focus my lens on this scene of horror! I wont even let my optician do this to me in case I throw up on her!
Being an autopsy photographer I have to get up close to the body on many occasions. I also like to chat a lot so sometimes I do forget to concentrate on what is going on when I’m not taking pics. On this occasion I was in full flow with my mate the Medical Examiner (M.E.). Chat chat chat, then fortunately I chose to turn and move to (obviously) talk to someone else. This particular body had got an incredibly large abscess (nothing to do with how they died for your info) and the M.E’s knife had clearly hit a pressure point. The liquid sprayed out of this abscess, high in the air and completely covered the floor and wall exactly where I had been standing!!
Another CSI Autopsy Photography peril is the ladder. Setting the scene; you are wearing overshoes and these are plastic and when wet get very slippery. Your step ladder is metal and if the person in a completely different department has decided you don’t need the industrial rubber stepped ladder and got you a ‘cheaper’ version, your steps will be also slippery. You will be wearing that cape gown and carrying a camera, stepping on your metal ladder in your wet plastic overshoes.
What you then don’t want to be doing is leaning over on the top of your step ladder in all that I have just described to get a ‘really good overview’ of the guts and gore of the opened body. YOU COULD FALL IN!!!! Only once have I come close to slipping but the fear is there for that shot at every autopsy!
Another issue with the ladder comes when the deceased is very decomposed . As when that body bag is opened, the smell comes right out and lingers at the ceiling. And this is where you will be for the first 8-12 shots of the autopsy. Right up there at the top of your ladder getting the overviews. Gag alert! I’ve known some of my predecessors to have to come down for air at some points before they can carry on with their job. I take the option of holding my breath to get through this!
Medical Examiners and their staff are completely used to foul smells as this world is their work life. We are a bit more wussy than them, and thankfully when there is a really smelly body they have a lovely aerosol spray we can use to counteract the stench. This does however present a new problem for us. Remember those slippery overshoes you are already wearing which are difficult enough to stay upright in in the first place? The aerosol we are now liberally spraying around seems to be oil based and it turns the autopsy room in to an ice rink. Probably fun in any other circumstances other than when you are surrounded by sharp cutting implements and messy body parts all other the place. This is definitely an environment you want to be staying on your feet in!!
These are my own personal CSI Mortuary Perils. CSI’s what are your least favourite parts? Let me know!