On a rainy Tuesday morning, Aug. 12, just after 7 a.m., the lifeless, contorted bodies of seven men of assorted ages and races lie separately on steel carts within the autopsy suite at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).
One man with a mangled motorcycle helmet still strapped to his head, had on a dark gray work shirt with an “Utz” tag sewn into it. Another man was clad only in a hospital gown. While a third man was dressed in stylish knee length shorts and a baggy short sleeved designer shirt, most exposed areas of his skin inscribed with various tattoos.
Each of them with a story most of us — outside their circle of friends and loved ones — will never know.
Yet, many of the stories of the state’s deceased, those who perish in the wake of empirical violence and mayhem or under suspicious circumstances, are often the burden of the state’s 12 autopsy technicians.
“We take it home, it’s personal you know? It could easily be one of our family members,” said Robert Mills who has worked in the OCME for six years and performed the same work in Georgia for 13 years. “No family is left alone, we are part of that family when their loved one comes through that door,” Mills added.
What Mills alludes to is the reality that autopsy techs (whose entry level salary is $23,584) are not only responsible for all aspects of performing postmortem examinations, they are also charged with the often heart wrenching work of interacting directly with the loved ones of the deceased. Mills and his colleagues call this task, “working the desk.” Those duties include assigning cases to the techs “working the floor” (performing autopsies), assisting families, funeral homes and law enforcement via phone and in person and releasing the deceased to funeral homes.
Indeed, the spiritual and emotional work of the state’s autopsy techs takes a toll. But the list of physical duties in the performance of their job is formidable.
The techs perform lodox (X-ray) and CT scans, advise doctors and alert them to specific scenarios, maintain the sanitation of equipment and the autopsy suites, stock and monitor supplies and equipment, among myriad other duties.
And then there is the actual performance of the autopsy. Watching Mills perform the gruesome and grueling work of eviscerating a body (which they most often do autonomously without a doctor’s supervision) is at once fascinating and horrifying. They remove all the organs and obtain fluids for toxicology, trace bullet paths, mark exit wounds, remove projectiles (like bullets), to name a few elements of the procedure.
The task is inherently wrought with peril for the autopsy techs. Last week, the examination of a 24-day-old infant with meningitis, compelled several of them to take an antibiotic known as “Cipro” (Ciprofloxacin).
They are under the constant threat of exposure to a variety of potentially deadly diseases and viruses like meningitis, hepatitis, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The recent ebola scare in West Africa (which was contracted by two Americans who have subsequently been brought to the United States for treatment) that has dominated news reports has been a frightening reminder of the danger inherent in their jobs.
“What we’re doing is a high risk job; it’s like working at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). At the end of the day we really don’t know what a person comes in here with,” Mills said.
“The techs are looking to be treated at an equal level, to be treated as if we are PA’s (pathologist assistants) because in the long run we are the doctor’s eyes…they are relying on us. We do it all from the beginning to the end,” Mills added.
Although the state’s 12 autopsy technicians argue they are woefully underpaid (attorney J. Wyndal Gordon is representing the group pro bono) and not treated with the respect they deserve given the importance of their job; they assert that they perform it with a high level of professionalism and maintain that the work they do is more than a paycheck for them.
“We want the family to know that we’re not here just for money purposes, we’re here to serve and help families (find) closure, their pain is our pain,” Mills said.
“And that’s something people need to realize. What we do for a living, working with flesh, is a God-given ability; we’ve been chosen to do this.”