Standing Opposite Doctor Death

The pursuit of my dream to become a doctor led me to the most unthinkable place I could have ever imagined. The place: Utah State Office of the Medical Examiner (OME). It is not as glamorous as they would lead you to believe on television. The infamous, ubiquitous, “they” portray gorgeous people dressed to the nines, toiling tirelessly in pursuit of justice for the helpless dead, and all before the last commercial break. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good-looking people who work with me at the OME. However, while at work we look less GQ and more lunch lady-ish (referring to the bouffant caps, plastic aprons, and rubber gloves.)

I was twenty-three years old when the medical examiner hired me to be a morgue clerk. My mind was fresh and narrowly optimistic. I juggled night-shift at the morgue, 14 credit hours at the University of Utah, and a daytime student job on campus.

My younger, more ignorant self might have said that I was livin’ the dream. I had energy and direction and couldn’t rest. I wasn’t happy unless I was moving forward, gobbling prerequisite after prerequisite. Unknown to young, optimistic self the temporary job that was meant to springboard this dreamer into medical school wouldn’t be as temporary as I thought.

Meanwhile, however, I literally ran around fulfilling obligations, following tight schedules, and maintaining a slightly above average GPA. Ten years later I reflect on that spent time as I admire my 4-year-old run around the house in his superhero cape-full of energy and curiosity. I imagine that my senior associates must have observed me back then as somewhat impetuous and youthful much like the way I see my 4-year-old – sans cape.

I graduated from the University of Utah at twenty-six. I was married with two children and found myself at a crossroads. I was rejected by University of Utah Medical School, and several others nearby. I didn’t want to move to the East Coast. What was I to do?

While I wondered and prayed for guidance something happened at the OME that doesn’t happen often. A full-time, management position became available. My wife and I had just purchased a home in the Salt Lake valleyand were very happy to stay awhile. Needless to say, I applied for the position and was promoted two weeks later.

Utah State Office of the Medical Examiner

I do not regret my decision. Sometimes, when asked whether I’ll apply to medical school again, I experience momentary longing and briefly imagine myself in a white lab coat with a name badge that reads, “Dr. Callor.” It’s a mere passing thought, a whim really – fleeting fancy.

Today I find myself right where I belong – standing opposite doctor death. (I’m referring to the medical examiner.)

I am Supervising Medical Examiner Assistant for Utah Department of Heath/Division of Disease Control and Prevention/Office of the Medical Examiner. In short, I’m the morgue boss. Maybe there should be a television series called Morgue Bosses. I could be the godfather – I am Italian after all.

Under direction of the Chief Medical Examiner and Deputy Chief M.E. I hire and fire morgue personnel, manage 11 people including one intern, maintain the morgue which includes radiology and histology, buy supplies, and perform autopsies. Autopsies take up most of my time. We generally perform six autopsies per day throughout the year. For reference, a full postmortem forensic autopsy should take two hours or more depending on circumstances.

Let me illustrate how we fit six autopsies into an eight-hour schedule. One forensic pathologist is scheduled each day with a back-up doctor on-call if caseload requires. One autopsy assistant is scheduled to cut with the duty doctor each day. One assistant is scheduled to work in the histology department daily. I generally work on administrative duties every day except the days I schedule myself to work with the duty doc. That leaves three autopsy assistants to work on ancillary tasks such as photography, fingerprinting, toxicology sample collection, clerical duties, and working with the back-up doc if needed. One of the three may also be asked to “double-up” with the duty doc by performing another autopsy simultaneously. We are able to cut our time in half by performing dual autopsies. However, it keeps the pathologist very busy supervising two exams at once.

This arrangement keeps up hopping during the workweek. We work seven days a week, but cannot afford to schedule more assistants on the weekend. Currently we share the responsibility by rotating our weekend work schedule. (As it so happens, I just worked this past weekend including the holiday today. Now I must take a few days off this week to mitigate overtime pay. It works out great, though, since I need a few days off for personal reasons.) Now, imagine how the weekend must work with one autopsy assistant and one doctor. In the past we could count on the death toll being low on weekends. Unfortunately times have changed. Today we use part-time employees who are specially trained to perform ancillary tasks and partial autopsies. The M.E. Tech I, a.k.a. morgue clerk, takes care of photos and other clean work while the M.E. Tech II performs autopsies under the close supervision of the Medical Examiner standing on the opposite side of the autopsy table.

Overall, it’s a very efficient system in my opinion. We can accomplish about one autopsy per hour under our current method – even on weekends. This time frame includes set-up to clean-up. We must maintain this schedule in order to examine every body within the 24 hour period mandated by Utah legislature. (I’ll elaborate on this topic more in future posts.)

In summary, I’m pleased to be working for the medical examiner. I learn more every day about forensic science from a medical examiner, and I get to practice forensic medicine with a medical examiner. I get to leave my work at the office, and although I may never be called doctor I’ll settle for the next best thing – Daddy. (And not by the intern.)

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4 responses to “Standing Opposite Doctor Death

  1. It takes a while to figure out where one’s prioities should be, I love your last thought in this piece. Congratulations on a great piece!

  2. It’s clear to me you are really where you ought to be-it is amazing how quickly you became boss. You’ll know our insides better than any doctor – your patients will never complain or sue you. You are a great daddy and a great guy.

  3. Pingback: In the Thick of Things | brandcall

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