Wednesday, January 19, 2011

PSP Citizen's Police Academy: Field Trip

Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office

By Annette Dashofy

This was the week I’d been looking forward to since I first signed up for CPA. Maybe I’m a little weird, but touring the morgue has been on my want-to-do list for ages. The hazards of writing crime fiction, I guess.

As a side note, I have to share a little history regarding the morgue in Pittsburgh. Years ago, folks used to go there on dates. And you thought I was wacky for wanting to tour the place? Ha! My mom tells of going there on a date (not with my dad!) when she was a young girl. They went in and viewed the bodies. I suppose the idea for having the bodies available for viewing at any time was so folks could go in and identify a missing loved one. This was in the days before AFIS and CODIS. John Does were much more common place than they are now.

But back to the present.

My Citizen’s Police Academy class gathered in the lobby of the ME’s office on a bitterly cold December night to await our tour. Alas, these are the only photographs I have, since I was asked not to take pictures inside. Darn it.

Allegheny County’s ME’s office recently moved to its new location in the Strip District. Here, the ME’s office is on the lower level. Upstairs is the county’s crime lab.

Under Pennsylvania Coroner’s Law, there is no need for a warrant to search a victim’s residence. Forensic Investigators go in, looking for guns, drugs, suicide notes, etc.

In Allegheny County, the ME’s office deals with all hospice deaths, home deaths, traumatic deaths, and—surprisingly—all deaths at the ICU at one of the local teaching hospitals, because of the potential for issues arising with unsupervised residents. If you want to know which one, contact me privately.

They weed through all these deaths to determine if an autopsy is needed. If a body is brought into the morgue, it’s called, fittingly, a “morgue case.” Of the 8,300 deaths in Allegheny County last year, only about 2,000 were autopsied.

There is a difference between a forensic autopsy and a medical autopsy. A medical autopsy seeks out the cause of death. A forensic autopsy looks for the manner of death, of which there are five: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, and undetermined.

Only the coroner can sign an accidental death certificate.

Interesting (to me, at least) note: bodies coming in to autopsy are x-rayed to find out if there are any foreign objects inside. All old bullets are removed, as they could potentially connect to another crime.

At this point in the tour, we were ushered from the offices to the behind-the-scenes area, beginning with the garage. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner vans are plain, white vans with a little modification inside and lettering on the outside. The stretchers are stripped-down models compared to the kind used on an ambulance. No need to elevate the head of these patients! Our guide showed us a single-use body bag that looked like a blue tarp with a zipper. This would then go inside a black body bag and be covered with a shroud for transport.

One interesting note about the inside of the vans: There was a cargo net separating the back of the van from the driver compartment. No one, including our Forensic Investigator tour guide, could figure out what purpose it served. It wasn’t strong enough to hold back a body or a stretcher in case of an accident. And as our tour guide pointed out, it wasn’t strong enough to protect the live humans from zombies either.

I kid you not. She said that. Just one example of the sense of humor of a morgue worker.

In Allegheny County, ambulance crews cannot touch…other than to put on EKG leads…or transport a body. (I can vouch this isn’t the case everywhere, since I once transported a dead body when I worked on our local, small town ambulance crew.)

From the garage, we moved on to the coolers. There were three of them. One for incoming bodies, yet to be autopsied. One for bodies already autopsied and awaiting pickup from the funeral director. And one for decomposing bodies.

Unlike NCIS or CSI, bodies aren’t kept in drawers. They’re stored in large (very large) walk-in coolers. And we did get to walk in. Fans keep the “aroma” to a minimum. I was braced for the stench in the decomp cooler, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the occasional roadkill raccoon in front of my house in the summer. The stretcher holding the pieces and parts of a skeleton was interesting, though.

FYI: they don’t use toe tags. Instead, bodies are labeled with wrist straps, much like you get at a hospital. Their names are also printed on the body bags.

Then we moved into the morgue where the autopsies are performed.

During an autopsy, all the cutting into the body is done by an autopsy tech. Photographs are taken at every step of the process, from photographing the body dirty, then after it’s cleaned up, and at each point in the autopsy.

Several of our class members were stunned to learn that only a high school diploma or GED was required to be an autopsy tech. After all, they aren’t going to hurt the “patient.”

The forensic pathologist takes notes of findings. Organs are removed, weighed, and placed on a cutting board on a table where the pathologist goes through them and takes samples.

I wish I’d been able to photograph this room. It looked very much like pictures I’d seen. One thing you don’t usually read about or see on TV, though, is the bug zapper. Apparently almost every morgue has one. Those pesky maggots do hatch out into a lot of flies.


And there was an Autopsy Tip Jar. Presumably for those aforementioned zombies.

An autopsy can take anywhere from an hour to complete to two days (example: for a body with many, many stab wounds.)

Afterwards, the death certificate is signed, not by the pathologist, but by the coroner.

It was a fascinating evening. I picked up lots of fodder for my writing. And as for that tip jar? I’ll definitely be using that one in my current work in progress. You just can’t make this stuff up!


Ramona said...

Annette, I am pretty squeamish, but I wasn't grossed out until you got to the bug zapper. Ew.

Two questions:

1. Who gets the tips from the Autopsy Tip Jar?
2. When your mother went on this date to the morgue, how did the guy ask her? "Hey, baby, wanna check out this cool place I know?"

Gina said...

Annette -
Who puts the tips in the autopsy tip jar?

Annette said...

I think the tip jar was just a joke. At least, I hope it was!

Ramona, I'll have to ask my mom about that. But lots of folks did it back in the day. I imagine the boys liked to get their dates scared so they'd cling to them.

Joyce Tremel said...

Both my mom and my mother-in-law went on dates to the morgue. Apparently, it was the thing to do.
I think they should revive that practice. I know I'd go--I'm not sure hubby would, though!

Thanks for the great info, Annette.

Jennie Bentley said...

This is awesome! If you're not doing it already, you should keep these 'business' related posts together somewhere, tagged or whatnot, so the rest of us - who will never visit the morgue - can find them and sound like we know what we're talking about. Store them on your website or personal blog something. Please. I bet your readers will find them interesting as well once you get that book signed and published!

Yeah, those flies are nasty. A couple of years ago, DH and I had a real estate listing - nice house - where something had crawled into the ductwork and died. The house was full of big, black flies. Needless to say, it took a while to sell it.

Annette said...

That's a great idea, Jennie. Thanks!

And I imagine you just grossed out Ramona again. ;-)

Donnell said...

Annette, fabulous as always, but then, I love this stuff, too! Question: You write that it's the Medical Examiner's office, but then say coroner. Is Pennsylvania a ME or Coroner state? Confused here.

So did you leave a tip ;)

El Paso County has the walk in refrigerator, too, if I remember correctly, don't recall seeing drawers. Thanks for a great report.

Annette said...

Donnell, Pittsburgh switched over to a medical examiner only a few years ago. Prior to that we had Coroner Cyril Wecht, who you may have heard about. Philadelphia also has an ME. But the rest of Pennsylvania still uses the coroner system.

FYI, in case anyone doesn't know the difference, a Medical Examiner is appointed. A Coroner is elected and doesn't have to have a medical background. Often, the coroner is a funeral home director. They bring in a forensic pathologist to perform the autopsies.

Janet Bolin said...

How did they dress for a date to the morgue?

Annette said...

Probably same as for any trip to the city, Janet. In my mom's case, this would have been in the late 1930s or early 40s, so I'm sure they were lookin' fine.

Janet Bolin said...

So--probably in the summer, a dressy dress, white gloves, heels, stockings, and a hat!

Pittsburghers (I was born one, so I can say this) have odd senses of humor.