The Autopsy

Recently I received an early-morning phone call to view a full autopsy at our city’s medical examiner’s office.  Jumping at the chance, I quickly got ready and headed downtown.

Upon arriving, I was led to a back room where a slightly overweight, young woman laid naked on a steel table, mouth open and stiff.  Though her death was an apparent drug-overdose, the word “apparent” enforced the need to better determine the cause of death.  The forensic team, armed and ready for this investigation, was a forensic detective, the city’s head medical examiner, and the autopsy technician.

Equipped with just a medical mask and apron, I stood right next to the body as they got to work with their first two major incisions.  Making a “T”-like incision on her body, they cut from armpit to armpit at the top of her body, and then straight down to her belly button, opening the woman up like a curtain on stage revealing the behind-the-scene “actors” that gave her life.

From there the medical examiner began to put her hands all throughout the woman’s cavity like a kid in a candy shop, showing me how all the organs sit inside our body while the rib cage was still intact.  This provided me the proper location perspective for each organ, prior to her then receiving them piece-by-piece for dissection.

After a quick organ tutorial, the small circular saw was taken out to begin cutting off the ribcage for better access in clearing out the entire cavity.  As the medical examiner stood by the feet of the woman with a small hose and cutting board, autopsy technician began his work of removing all of the organs and passing them onto the medical examiner.

With each organ received, the medical examiner would take it in her hands, weigh it on a scale, and then immediately turned into “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” explaining to me how the organs functioned and what is considered healthy and/or unhealthy.  She would then take a small sample for further tests, while slicing the rest of the organ into pieces to ensure there was proper health and function throughout the appendage.

The organs were plentiful.  We looked at the kidneys, lungs, spleen, and heart.  I was overwhelmed by the size of our liver, and complexity of the tongue and esophagus, and taken back by the smells of our bow, stomach, and the 30-feet of large & small intestine. I was also blown away that upon looking at the woman’s reproductive organs, a few slices determine she had just ovulated and that menstruation would have been just a few days away.

Being completely mesmerized by the medical examiner’s observations and instruction, I hadn’t notice that in about 40 minutes time, the body sitting next to me was completely cleaned out from her neck to the bottom of her pelvis.  The only thing left was her spine, which was once again cut through with a small circular saw, where we examined the stability of the bone marrow, as well as the health of her actual spinal chord.

The circular saw was then used one final time on the back of the woman’s skull.  After an incision at the back of the head from ear to ear, the woman’s long, bushy hair and skin was taken and pulled over her face.  This allowed us to have a wide-open view of the back of her skull, which quickly had a small door sawed into it.  The medical examiner then pulled out the brain and walked it back over to the table for further explanation and dissection.  I have to admit I didn’t realize how flat of a surface the brain sat on in our heads, nor did I realize how soft and slimy it truly was.

As we finished our investigating of all of the organs, the small samples where carefully gathered and prepared to be taken to the research lab down the hall.  As for the rest of the organs sliced into little small pieces, they were all still sitting in the black trash bag where the medical examiner had previously disposed of them.  The autopsy technician then took the black plastic garbage bag, tied a knot at the top, and surprisingly shoved it into the woman’s cavity! Finally, he placed the breastplate back on like a puzzle, and began doing a very quick stitch to secure her body back together (with some of the bag still hanging out).

Confused on what was happening, I asked a few questions to find out that anyone who receives a full autopsy has an actual bag of all their sliced and diced organs sitting in their cavity!  Not only are they taken to the morgue like this, but continue to attain this bag at their viewing and burial.  After a final puzzle piece was positioned on the back of her head, followed by another quick stitch, the woman was placed in a body bag, and carted into a refrigerator with several other bodies waiting for their funeral home pickup.

A definite privilege and life-long memory, giving further contemplation to life-impact, the inevitability of death, the everlasting soul, and the Apostle Peter’s reference of his body being a mere “tent” (2 Peter 1:13).


~ by Dave Smith on April 4, 2010.

4 Responses to “The Autopsy”

  1. Thanks to “forensic pathologist” for the pushback in changing the terminology of “guy who did the majority of the cutting”…I really don’t know what you call that position. I definitely changed it after hearing your perspective, along with a few other light comments.

    The interesting thing about being in the office was the use of odd or offbeat humor up on the walls and used within the lab (i.e. various signs with the Grim Reaper, Beauty Salon slogans, comments made by the employees, etc). When I asked about it, they responded it was a way to help deal with the day in-and-out heaviness of what goes on…but it sounds like it is best to reserve that right for the people who truly deal with it on a consistent basis.

    Well said. Thank you.

  2. Well Dave, I apologize too, I am sort of protective of my profession and the folks that work in it, and may have over reacted. Otherwise it was a good representation of what we do. The technical term is autopsy technician, some call it a diener. Anyways, we do our job at all times with the knowledge that everyone we examine has a family at home in total devastation at what has happened to their loved one. But we can’t take all that tragedy into our lives. We don’t know these people, and we can’t do our job if we internalize it, plus we are very used to it. And yes, it is strange, but we have to have fun at our job, while taking it very seriously, or we would just become dysfunctional, so there is a lot of humor and light heartedness, believe it or not, while we try to do the best we can for these people and their families.

    Ok, again, sorry, i overreacted and said some bad things. Seeing what we do can truly be a spiritual experience, and I hope it has left you with a better understanding of the circle of life.


  3. Really grateful for your remarks, and not an overreaction at all (though thought it would be best to keep them personal, so excluded them from the site).

    A lack of empathy and perspective on my part.

    Definitely admire the hard work your profession does for our society, usually going unnoticed.

    Thanks again.

  4. I wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds in that room 🙂

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