It’s early evening and I am just sitting down to a bowl of Chunky Firehouse Chili when my beeper goes off. My shift started about 25 minutes ago. I sigh. Well, at least I had the forethought to take a shower this time.
Dispatch informs me there is a DOA at a residence about 10 minutes from my house. The decedent was a 50-year-old white male. That’s all they can give me for details. I ask for the name of the officer on scene and his/her phone number. Officer Reflo. I call him and he informs me, “He was found in the bathroom, unconscious not breathing.” That’s it. Okay, I think, that means that the family was probably all gathered around the television, he went to the bathroom, they heard a thump, and that’s the end of it. Should be open and shut.
I ask Reflo to interview the family regarding medical history, doctors, medications he might have been taking, etc... I’m hoping he has an extensive enough hx so that I can have a doctor sign him out instead of me having to brave -4 below weather on a cold Wisconsin night.
Reflo calls back a few minutes later with the name of a heart doctor and an oncologist. The guy had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer two weeks ago.
Hmmm—this’ll be a snap, I think. I call the oncologist and he tells me that, sure, the guy had cancer, but it was a very treatable case and he is truly SHOCKED that Dead Guy died. Errg. I mention the heart medication that Dead Guy was on and the oncologist waffles again. “I don’t know about that. I don’t feel comfortable signing a death certificate in this case.”
So, I call the cardiologist. Same thing. Sure, he had really unfavorable stress tests last time he was in, but she is still completely blown out of the water by this man’s passing. She would feel better reviewing the chart on Monday and then telling me if she’ll sign the death certificate at that time.
“All right. Thank you, doctor, for your help. I’m sure you’ll hear from our office in the morning.” I flip the bird to the telephone before hanging up.
Sometimes doctors really piss me off. Unless the guy has no medical history at all, unless he was stabbed, shot, or bludgeoned…unless he was hit by car, damage, or otherwise mangled in some way…this is not a medical examiner’s case. Many doctors are skittish about signing a DC because they are afraid of liability if the family dislikes their final judgment on cause of death. They’d much rather leave that nasty business to an ME.
So, here I am…stuck bringing the body in because it will take more than a couple of hours to argue with these physicians and, in the meantime, there is a family with a dead guy in their bathroom that would probably like him removed. Well, I think as I pull a stocking cap down on my head and don my mittens, at least he’s not a decomp.
I drive to the MEO and switch out my truck for the van. The lock is frozen and it takes me a minute to loosen it up, so by the time I get in, my fingers are stiff with cold. I breathe on them and then turn the key in the ignition. It starts up with a groan and the breaks squeak as I drive away.
Twenty minutes later I come up to the house. It is a middleclass residential neighborhood with modest, ranch-style homes built in the ‘60s. There are four cop cars parked along the road. Must be a slow night. They all like to come out and loiter around death scenes if there’s nothing better to do.
I am greeted at the van door by a tall officer, Officer Wink, with dark blond hair. He’s got an easy smile and immediately begins joking around with me. ‘This guy’s daughter last saw him on Friday. She came in this afternoon with her boyfriend and they ordered pizza. Polly, it smells to high heaven in there. I can’t believe they didn’t notice it when they walked in. I think the daughter is kind of slow.” He points to his head and makes a ‘coo-coo’ gesture.
Uh oh. “Smells? How long did you say since the daughter last saw him?” I ask as we walk toward the door. We aren’t even inside yet and I can already smell it.
“Friday.” He holds the door open for me.
“Yeah. That’s what I thought you said.”
I walk into a room full of people. There are candles burning and the windows are open despite the frigid weather. I introduce myself and give my card to the decedent’s brother. I explain that I’ll be examining the body and then transporting to the MEO. I tell them that based on the results of the investigation, there may or may not be an autopsy.
Officer Wink leads me down the hallway toward the master bedroom. As we walk, the odor of decomp gets stronger and stronger. I begin breathing through my mouth as I turn into the room. There are two more officers there. I greet Officer Reflo and say, “Yeah. Would have been nice to get a heads up on the state of our DOA, here. I would have dressed a bit differently.” (I am currently wearing my favorite jeans, my favorite old sneakers, and a long-sleeved t-shirt with the MEO insignia on it.) Reflo looks sheepish. Good.
While the cops discuss what to do with the stash of marijuana in the bottom drawer of Dead Guy’s bureau, I walk to the doorway of the master bathroom. The man is lying on his stomach. His BVDs are around his ankles. Looks like he was in the process of seeing a man about a horse when he collapsed. The skin on his legs, arms, and face has already turned blue/green with decomposition and you can see what looks like blue/green “marbling” working its way up his torso from his extremities. He is bloated and there is bloody purge pooling around his mouth.
“Hey!” It’s Officer Wink. “Let’s order some pizza!”
I turn and roll my eyes at him. I am currently straddling the torso so I can get a better look at Dead Guy’s face and take photographs. His head in no way resembles the man he used to be. It is black and swollen. The lips are huge and the tongue is fat and protruding from the mouth. His eyes are bugging out as the tissues swell and the optic nerve loosens its grip on the eyeballs. There are huge blisters of fluid under the skin that are full of clear decomp fluid. His skin is slipping badly.
My eyes and nose start to water. I am currently breathing through my mouth to combat the smell, but it is almost worse since I can fairly taste the decomp, it is so strong.
Well, at least there are no bugs.