Invitation to an Autopsy

Like many good stories, this one starts with an unexpected challenge from a very surprising character.

Social dancing is one of those activities that bring together a wide range of people. Argentine Tango has introduced me to some amazing characters and to some dear friends —those two categories are not mutually exclusive. But in large part, social dancing doesn’t allow for deep “getting to know you” interactions. It’s easy to have causal conversations and fill in the blanks based on superficial observations.

If someone had asked me to guess what the tall, slender, well-spoken, elegantly groomed woman who came to Tango after competitive ballroom did for a living, I’d have guessed that she was a former model turned fashion industry executive. But one day while waiting for a special Tango workshop in a SoHo loft to begin, K mentioned that she was a forensic pathologist working in the Queens County Coroner’s Office.

I was thrilled.

I was writing a mystery and knew that adding a forensic pathologist to my network of experts would be fantastic. I told K that I wanted to pick her brains and that I’d take her out to dinner after a Tango class in exchange for answering a few questions.

She said, “No.” Instead she made a very interesting counter offer. “Come to my office and watch me perform an autopsy. If you do that, I’ll answer all your questions and you can call me any time if you have more.”

Apparently, everyone — especially mystery writers and readers — wants to pick a forensic pathologist’s brains — but few of them were willing to watch an actual autopsy, which is the best way to answer a long list of those initial questions. I agreed to K’s terms, warning her that I was a bit squeamish by nature. She smiled and assured me I’d be fine, adding that most people balked at her challenge. So one afternoon we headed to her office. On the way we talked about when autopsies are legally necessary and under what circumstances autopsies are requested by families. She also made sure that I had some mint chewing gum on hand.

Once in the office, she introduced me to the staff. They joked and laughed about everything except the corpses and the bereaved — for the dead and the grieving, they had the utmost respect and that never waivered. Not even when they wheeled an enormous body into the room. When I say enormous — I mean it. Two assistants helped K maneuver him onto the scale and he topped out at close to 300lbs. After the external examination, I watched her make the classic Y-shaped incision and remove, examine and weigh his oversized organs. I watched her saw the top of his skull off and remove his brain to be weighed. I saw her take samples for slides.

By this time, I was hovering near the doorway — half in the room and half outside it, chomping on mint flavored chewing gum. My attention alternated between K working on the body and the minty-fresh source of sanity. Before K finished, another body was wheeled in and one of her colleagues began to perform an autopsy. I was fine until the second saw came out to cut into the second skull. I slipped outside into the parking lot and stayed there until the nausea passed.

I passed K’s test. The man on the slab didn’t spring back to life — that would have been one hell of a story — but I survived his surgical procedure. I call or email her whenever I need to check a fact or kill off a character. She helped me with one of the murders in POED and we had a great conversation about drugs and hypnosis while I was writing the upcoming MONSTER — The Strange Case of Dr. Hyde and Her Friends.

K moved upstate and is now a Chief Medical Examiner for a beautiful and semi-rural county. Every now and then she comes down to NYC for a medical conference or to go to the ballet. Over the years I’ve learned about how she came to be a forensic pathologist and her back-story would be perfect for a heroine in a romantic suspense novel.

The best stories always start with a great character!



    • Candy

      The brave one is K. She became a forensic pathologist in the Navy. I have to ask her if I can use the basic outline of her life in a romantic suspense novel. She’d be a perfect protagonist!

  1. Allan Krummena cker

    Way to go, I don’t know if I could have handled that. But well done. Glad you have someone you can consult with for this kind of thing. In my Psych class about Death and Dying I got to meet a coroner and while he told us a lot, it sounds like actually being there and seeing was a really good learning experience. I know you’ll put it to good use.

    Well done.

    • Candy

      At the time, I thought the price was steep, but full access to K’s expertise has paid off over and over again. She was right about being there in the room. The sensory experience, however unpleasant, is exponentially more educational than reading about it in a book. She’s also become a good friend and that’s always welcome.

  2. You are one brave woman Candy! That said, I would give at least one arm to have such a fantastic connection. Your friend K sounds like an amazing person, part scientist, part sleuth and part hero.

    • Candy

      K is definitely the brave one. I was the mouse observing. I also watched her talk on the phone with family members. One conversation explained why it was NOT necessary to do an autopsy of a very old lady who died in a hospital to hysterical family members and the second one detailed why an autopsy had to be done on a man who died in of suddenly on a railroad platform, although there were religious objections to the procedure. She was brilliant and compassionate with both parties.

      I didn’t eat meat for weeks after the autopsy and K said she dropped a lot of weight when she started at that office. I thought this was interesting because her work in the Navy (where she was trained as a forensic pathologist) must have been pretty gruesome.

  3. Amazing article, my hat goes off to you for having the guts to experience an autopsy. I might have been tempted & full of morbid curiosity but there’s no way I could have gone thru with it. I watch horror movies with my face in my palms so no way. The great thing is that you can now draw from that experience when writing. Kudus to you, K and all of the medical examiners who handle the deceased with such respect, it can’t be an easy job.

    • Candy

      I definitely walked out of that office with deep respect for the entire staff. They were a nice and jovial bunch of people, but they never lost sight of the feelings of the bereaved. They also showed me the room where family members make identifications and, again, it was all about making it easier on the grieving spouse, child, parent or friend.

      Talking to K that day — and many times since, has been an education!

  4. Sitting through the autopsy of an elderly man who drowned but whose body wasn’t found for a week was fascinating and small beer compared to watching a friend start heaving halfway through. My stomach wanted to go in sympathy.
    You’re very brave to have watched your friend at work and she must be an amazing person to cope with doing it all day every day. I think most coroners have some empathy with family and friends of the bereaved which is a blessing and a skill. What an asset to have such a learned person to call on with your questions. I’ll stick to humour I think.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • Candy

      She really is a great character. A doctor when she joined the Navy, they trained her in the specialty and then she took it into her civilian life. I’m really glad she didn’t accept my offer of dinner after a dance class and insisted that I see for myself before she became my resource.

  5. The closest I’ve come to such an experience would be dissecting a pig in a college biology class. What a cool opportunity for you. I’d like to think I could do such a thing, but once you mentioned the saws coming out, I wondered if I really could. What a great resource you’ve found in K.

    • Candy

      I have some interesting friends in interesting, and varied, fields. Even in that extraordinary group — K stands out!

  6. My weft used to work in reprocessing at one of the hospitals near here. They clean the surgical instruments. Interesting to note that quite a bit used in surgery can be bought at your local hardware store.

    I love inappropriate humor. I am the one that would be in trouble in an environment like that for so many poor taste jokes.

    • Candy

      The levity in the office was about EVERYTHING except the dead & grieving. Would they get fired for crossing that line? Maybe, I’ll have to ask K. Now’s she’s the top person in a smaller coroner’s office so she’s the one who sets the tone.

      Interesting about the tools.