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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Autopsy Turvy

Tonight, Mrs. Apron and I slumped inertly on the couch and mechanically ate our dinner while watching a re-run of a "Jeopardy!" Teen Tournament. Our living room was stifling, the heat and humidity weighed down on us like a leatherpress, what else could we do? It was way too hot to initiate baby-making procedures in front of old Alex, so we just munched and zoned.

I remembered this episode in particular. During the usually painful interview section of the program, the slut on the right expressed her aspiration to be a doctor. She said that she had already witnessed lung surgery. "And I've held a brain!" she added with some enthusiasm.

Hmpf, I recalled, so have I.

In 2005, as I was nearing the end of my schooling, if you can call it that, to certify me as an emergency medical technician, there were three brief field stints I had to perform. First, logically, I had to complete one eight hour tour-of-duty on an ambulance. I did this at a Philadelphia hospital-based ambulance service, whose name I will neglect to mention so that I don't get sued for libel. I was positively giddy with excitement about my first real shift on an ambulance. Like most things I get positively giddy about in expectation, my shift on the ambulance didn't pan out exactly the way I had hoped.

It was a frigid day in February or thereabouts, and a layer of snow and slush covered the streets of Philadelphia. I arrived for my shift my customary twenty-five minutes early. I would have been even earlier, but I couldn't find the base. A security guard at the hospital directed me to the basement. Just so you know, if you're ever looking for a hospital-based ambulance company-- it's in the basement. There was a big conference table, but no one was sitting at it. There were four or five EMTs and paramedics all huddled around a smaller table atop which sat a fax machine. I soon gathered that they were all faxing their resumes to other ambulance companies.

The obese supervisor stepped in front of them and glowered at me, with my bright white EMT student polo shirt and my fresh-out-of-the-bag navy blue uniform pants and my stethoscope hanging around my neck. He hated me from the word "fag."

"Hi," I said nervously, "I'm, um, an EMT student."

He looked at me like he wanted to shit on his fist and hit me with it.

"Well, obviously," he replied, staring at my shirt.


He shoved a thick hand into his hip pocket and dug around. I assumed he had ringworm or something. He pulled his hand out and thrust a greasy key out in my face. "Move unit A-12," he commanded. "It's in the fucking way."

I took the key and navigated the complex stairs and halls of the hospital, getting lost three times on my way out to the alley where the ambulances were haphazardly parked as if they had been jumbled about by a tornado. In the fucking way of what? I wondered. They're all in the fucking way of... each other. Between the snow and the ridiculous way these things were parked, I didn't see how a single one of them could move anywhere. I arrived at unit A-12. A sorry excuse for an ambulance, it looked as if it had been gang-raped by a trio of 18-wheelers. When I opened the driver's side door, it almost fell off-- the hinges were rusted clean through. I hoisted myself into the vinyl driver's seat, which was carved up like a Christmas goose and I peered at the odometer.


Well, I thought, at that rate, unit 12-A wouldn't be in the fucking way for much longer.

The second field placement I had to do was a tour-of-duty in the Emergency Room at the same hospital. EMTs often find gainful employment in emergency rooms across the country, where they go by the title "Critical Care Technician." Basically, they take vital signs on patients and do everything that nurses feel entitled to delegate to someone who makes considerably less money than they do, like lift up incredibly fat people and/or clean out bedpans and vomit basins. Fortunately, I didn't have to do any of that during my emergency room rotation, because I was completely and utterly ignored by the nurses. My presence was only marginally acknowledged upon my arrival (initial my time-sheet here) and upon my departure (initial my time-sheet here). I did finally manage to make my mark on the evening when a transsexual psych-patient locked herself in the bathroom and was refusing orders to come out. A nurse had gathered that not only was she probably doing drugs in there, but that she was armed with a knife. I was told to go get security but, just as I was passing the bathroom, she burst the door open and she bolted out of the exit of the hospital. Not thinking at all, I tore off in chase, racing down a dimly-lit Center City street after her.

"Stop right there!" I screamed at her, my brand-new boots pounding against the pavement.

"Jesus Christ! Stop!" I didn't realize that the security guard who yelled that out was yelling at me until I got within around four or five feet of her and he yelled, "Kid! Stop! Jesus, stop!"

So I stopped and doubled over, panting. I looked behind me and there was an elderly security guard, extremely overweight, about thirty feet back, his hands on his thighs, a nurse behind him, holding my stethoscope, which had flown off during the chase. The tranny turned down an alleyway whilst hooting and laughing and extending her middle finger in my direction.

"Kid," the huffing and puffing whale-of-a-guard said once he'd caught up to me, "once they're off the hospital property-- fuck 'em. She's the cops' problem now. God! You're fucking crazy-- she could have killed you. It's not worth it."

Last up on the field rotation: the autopsy. The rationale behind EMTs attending autopsies is that they ought to have empathy and compassion for the human condition, and attending an autopsy is also a good way to get seeing your first dead body up close and personal out of the way fast. It's kind of ironic that, in seventeen months on the street as an EMT, I never saw a dead body, except one in the ICU of a local hospital that was slumped half out of bed and half on the floor. The curtain hadn't been pulled shut yet and "The Golden Girls" was still playing on the patient's TV. But, yeah, if I had ever encountered a dead person, the autopsy would have been a good primer for that occurrence. Plus, it's a really awesome way to learn anatomy. Most EMTs-in-training, being dickheads in their early 20s, just think it's cool/sick/fucked up. The subject of the autopsy I attended was an elderly woman who had perished while in the hospital. I made sure to stare at her wrist bracelet, mostly so I wouldn't have to stare at any other part of her, but also because I wanted to remember how old she was.

Of course, that was four years ago, and I've forgotten now. She was either 78 or 87. Damned dyscalculia and Alzheimers.

Anyway, I don't know what other people remember about their first autopsy, but I remember the stench that infiltrated my nostrils upon the opening of the woman's bowels. That's a smell no amount of mental Snuggle can ever ameliorate. It was horrid, putrid and fetid. Basically, any adjective that ends with "id" would be accurate. I also remember the smell that emanated from the saw as it buzzed through the woman's skull. It was slightly burnt, slightly sulphuric, slightly nauseating. Once the attending coroner had cut her domepiece entirely off, he used a pair of long, thin scissors to cut through the glistening, gelatinous membrane covering her brain. He told me to cup my hands below what was formerly her head and I thought to myself, "Oh my God, in about six seconds, I'm going to be holding this woman's fucking brain, aren't I?" Then he made two final clips by her occipital lobe and *glorp!* I was holding this woman's fucking brain.

Can I go on "Jeopardy!" now?

1 comment:

  1. Holy cats.. No one commented on this blog? Its funny what gets people to have "their" say. You held a brain in your hands.. UG.. I love it!
    I like when you talk about your EMT days.
    Cheers kid


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