Confessions of a Coroner
What's it really like in a coroner's office? The truth is, it's nothing like what you see on television.
As I stood over the railroad tracks, freezing and cold on a damp, rainy December morning, the sight was gruesome. Some kid had decided to throw himself in front of an Amtrak train -- and now I, as the coroner, was out at 3AM, trying to somehow make him whole again, so his family could bury him.
What a life.
Far from glamorous
Many who watch the 'CSI' television series think that being a coroner is glamorous work. While that might be true in some circles, for the most part, those of us who work in coroner's or medical examiner's offices find it a much more mundane and ugly line of work. There aren't any fancy laboratories with huge, clear computer screens lining the walls, nor the latest high-tech gadgets to determine if a person's last meal had more starch than protein. No, the day-to-day reality is that the coroner's office handles all the accidental deaths, as well as those of people who die alone, or without medical attention. Most of the cases are pretty boring.
Many of the deaths investigated by the coroner's office are routine, often old people who die at home, of natural causes. Then there are the homicides, accidents and suicides, which every office deals with -- but that don't happen nearly as frequently as those television shows would like you to believe. Those cases are the ugly scenes, the ones requiring the coroner's office to send out representatives to survey the scene and then begin piecing together exactly what happened. It's these days that a coroner relishes the job, since it gives us a chance to put together the pieces of a puzzle of someone's death.
In most areas, coroners are medical doctors who specialize in pathology. They choose to work with the dead, to unearth the questions of how someone died, often in the hopes of helping those left behind. Some more rural areas, however, don't have the funds to pay for a medical doctor, so the coroner's role is filled by the local funeral director, who teams with law enforcement. A pathologist will only be called in (and paid for) when they feel it's warranted. One has to wonder how often deaths are misdiagnosed in these areas, since even the best of instinct and training can't replace the medical background a pathologist brings to the table.
Most coroners wish that they had the glamorous job portrayed on television. The reality is that most of them wade through death scenes, stepping around blood and body fluids, trying not to gag over the smell, all the while doing their best to make an accurate determination of what happened. The scene after any trauma is not a pretty picture, somewhat reminiscent of road kill. And as I've mentioned above, sometimes it's hard to tell what you're looking at was once human.
While many of the deaths are fairly routine, it's the "floaters" -- the severely decomposed and bloated bodies -- that test the constitution of even the most steadfast individuals. One time in a high-rise tenement, I was called on to move the remains of a woman who had weighed over 450 pounds. She had been dead in her apartment for at least a week in a heat wave. There were so many flies you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. And, despite the initial officers on the scene opening up the windows, the odor was overwhelming. When people want to know if a coroner's job is really like television, that's the story I tell them.
And then there are the children. No matter how long you're on the job, handling the deaths of children brings extra pain to the experience. Virtually everyone in the coroner's office is dedicated to finding out exactly how someone died, but they all put a little special effort into the death of a child. Even the most seasoned veterans have a hard time dealing with those cases.
So the next time you're watching the glamorous, clean and tidy forensic examinations that wrap up in a little under an hour on television, think of the "real" people in the coroner's office - the ones who will gently move your grandmother when she dies at home, alone; or who will tirelessly attempt to find the reason your Uncle Bob died suddenly in his sleep. Those are the real unsung heroes of the coroner's office.
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