Life List

My Life List: Visit All 50 States

I'm not done yet, but I added two more states to my life list for a total of 27 states visited. Last month, we flew into Kansas City, Missouri and then drove to Kansas for a family event. We brought the girls with us. The toddler has now been to six states (airports count!): California, Illinois, Florida, Arizona, Missouri, and Kansas. The baby has been to three: California, Missouri, and Kansas.

My Lived List: Assisted in Three Autopsies

One of the things on my Lived List is that I assisted in three autopsies. Here is the gruesome tale. (Not really. There is only one icky part and I warn you about it in advance so that you can skip it if you want.)

I graduated from college with degrees in Psychology and Anthropology. I thought I would go the Psychology route and took a job as a child development worker with Early Head Start while I tried to get into graduate school in Clinical Psychology. One year of working in social services was enough to put me off the entire field, so I applied for graduate school in Forensic Anthropology. I was accepted at Arizona State University. I dropped out halfway through my first semester due to illness (I recovered just fine) and the fact that I hated Arizona. I moved back home to California.

While I was working temp jobs, figuring out what to do with my life, I thought it would be cool if I could get a job at the Medical Examiner's office, or even just volunteer so I could take a peek at skeletal remains once in awhile (as I was schooled to do, not because I am creepy). I sent the Ventura County Medical Examiner a letter and my resume. I heard back from him that they would soon have an opening for an Autopsy Assistant and, if I was interested in pursuing it, I could observe some autopsies to see if I could handle it. He was specifically interested in me because of my education in Forensic Anthropology. He previously consulted with a professor at UCSB, but that man had recently left to teach at another school, so the medical examiner thought it would be useful to have someone in-house who had at least some training. I don't think I shouted, "Hells, yeah!" into the phone.

The day starts with a meeting of the medical examiner (there are two in the office), the investigators, and the autopsy assistant. The investigators present what is known about the case before the medical examiner performs the autopsy.

The first autopsy I observed was on a man who had died of a (presumed) drug overdose in his apartment. He was found dead when neighbors complained of the smell. The investigators in the office complimented me on not gagging due to the stench. I believe I was only allowed to stand there and watch for that one. I don't recall asking a lot of questions.

The second autopsy I observed was on a woman who died from complications of the flu (I believe, though the immediate results of the autopsy were inconclusive). This time I asked a lot more questions, and I helped with small things like moving the body, handing things to the medical examiner, and cleaning up. The woman being autopsied was obese. (I wasn't, at the time. Sigh.) I asked the medical examiner if there were any visible signs of obesity other than the excess adipose tissue (fat, yo). She said that the organs were usually larger, too. I commented to the medical examiner that it was sad that she was estranged from her family when she died. The medical examiner tersely replied that we don't know what the circumstances were. At the time, I felt a little naive and foolish for making the statement but, since then, I have decided that, regardless of the circumstances, it is sad to die alone and estranged from your family. The other memory I have from that autopsy is pretty gruesome, so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don't want this visual in your head forever. Part of the autopsy is inspecting the skull and brain for injury. An incision is made around the hairline behind the ears and across the back of the skull. The scalp is pulled forward, crumpling the person's face, to expose the skull. A big wedge of skull is cuts with a saw removed to expose the brain. I will never forget the sight of that woman's face crumpling into itself as her scalp was pulled forward. That was the only point during all of this that I got a little squeamish.

The third autopsy I observed was for a woman who may have killed herself. She left a cryptic note. She was found in the bathtub by her husband. She was in the last stages of terminal cancer. It was after this autopsy that I was going to have to decide if I wanted the autopsy assistant job -- it was mine for the taking -- so I did most of the assistant job that day. I extracted a urine sample. I took finger prints (tough when you have to break the rigor first). I made the Y-incision. I removed the throat organs (and accidentally made a small, visible cut at the base of her throat that needed to be sewn up). I pulled her scalp forward and held it while the autopsy assistant handled the saw. Afterward, I helped the autopsy assistant put the body back in the cooler, clean up the table, and label all of the samples.

It was a full-time job. If I took it, I would be the second assistant and I would work evenings and weekends. The career path of the autopsy assistant is to eventually move on to being an investigator. I figured I would either go that route, or go back to school. In the end, I didn't take the job because of money. The autopsy assistant wage was about the same that I was making as a temp, but the investigator position topped out at $75K and I knew I had greater earning potential than that. There aren't many ways to pursue a career in Forensic Anthropology if you aren't in school, so I concentrated on finding a job doing the first thing I majored in, writing. I eventually found a job as a Content Editor at an internet start-up. Eleven years later, I am still working in the internet industry and I am making a hell of a lot more than the investigators at the Medical Examiner's office.