One of the first questions people ask when they discover that I work for the Medical Examiner is, “What has been your worst case?” That makes sense, right. Nobody can resist a “train wreck.” The scene is gruesome and horrifying, yet we cannot resist the urge to look. Knowing someone who actually works with death sparks people’s interest, they want to know more, and yet it scares them all the same. Really inquisitive minds will generally ask a follow-up question such as, “How do you handle the gore and the sadness?”
Here are my answers. To the first, “What has been your worst case?” I ultimately will recount an old case previously highlighted in the news. After all, I signed a confidentiality clause upon hiring and I DO value my job. Seriously though, I wouldn’t share the most gruesome case I’ve ever seen regardless of any ol’ confidentiality clause. The situations we deal with at the Medical Examiner’s Office day in and day out are not for the faint of heart-especially not for those whom I love and respect. I am of the opinion that no human being should ever be exposed to the nightmarish situations that are the norm at the OME (7 days a week, 365 days a year without fail.) Generally I can always come up with a relatively benign case that will appease the curious.
So, how do we do it, day in and day out? That is the question. In one word-perspective. I visualize each story for what it’s worth and categorize it without personalizing it. For example, one situation might call for collecting evidence to help solve a murder, or perhaps an unexpected and unknown cause of death must be discovered in order to provide comfort to a grieving family. Finding clues and answers is the satisfying part of the job. It’s very easy to personalize every story, but it is detrimental to one’s psychological well-being to do so.
Personally, I prefer to deal with the sadness and stress of work using humor. It is written that humor is the healthiest mechanism for coping. If you are interested in researching further into stress management and coping strategies then let me refer you to a brilliant, multidisciplinary work titled Stress, Appraisal, and Coping by Richard S. Lazarus, PhD and Susan Folkman, PhD. Dr. Lazarus indicates the importance of appraising each stressful situation. I believe that if you step back and evaluate the situation you not only gain a broader perspective but you might even find humor in it.
I’m reminded of a story told to me by a co-worker regarding her adult son who visited the office many years ago. He told her that he was shocked to hear laughter coming from around the corner where he timidly and trepidatiously waited for her. He asked, “How can you laugh in a place like this. Isn’t that disrespectful?” Her response went something like this, “We don’t laugh out of disrespect. We need to have fun in order to maintain our sanity.” (I’m sure I didn’t do her justice.) Essentially she was saying that we laugh so that we can keep firmly rooted in reality while allowing our minds to digest the stressful situation at hand.
Why am I telling you this? I’ll tell you why. I’m attempting to introduce my next series of posts that I would like to call Morgue Musing.
Some of the humor we find at work has to do with our own mistakes. For example, typographical errors can provide hours of entertainment. My favorite mistakes are transcription errors. It’s fun to read a report with transcription errors and try to determine what it should have said. That is precisely what I’m about to offer you.
I’ve commissioned my eight-year-old son to help me illustrate some of my favorite Medical Examiner’s “out-takes.” We’re going to post them here for your enjoyment. I’ll post them as-is and it’s your job to figure out what they should have said. I look forward to your comments. It will be fun to see how many of you get them correct. Some will be easier to decipher than others. The fun part for me will be to see my son’s interpretation as he illustrates.
I’ll close by sharing another anecdote. Several years ago my daughter was about 4 or 5 years old at the time and was attempting linguistics. She would listen intently to her mother and I as we conversed in the car or at the dinner table. We often spoke cryptically around her regarding my work. I would say things like, “We had ten cases today.” My wife understood that this meant we were very busy at work. One day, as I returned home from work my daughter quickly greeted me. She wanted to be first to ask how my day was. She had heard her mother ask me many times before, “Did you have a lot of cases today?” “She hugged tightly around my right leg as I walked stiff-legged to the couch. “Daddy, Daddy, did you have a lot of boxes today?” Well, I thought to myself, how did she know I received a shipment of supplies today. “Yes, Baby Girl, I did get a lot of boxes today. But how did you know?” My dear, sweet, intelligent wife entered the room about that time and said, “You DO realize what she’s asking don’t you.” Of course I do, I thought. “She asked me how many boxes I had today,” I said. My leg suddenly lost about 25 pounds as my daughter ran down the hallway to her room to finish playing with whatever she was playing with before I opened the front door and caught her attention. My wife winked and said, “She’s asking you how many cases you had today.”
Moral of the story is that perspective is from the eye of the beholder. Non-malice, respectable humor helps us keep our minds healthy. I hope you enjoy Morgue Musing.