An unfortunate death took place yesterday in our ICU, a young woman with complications from an elective surgical procedure. It was, of course, tragic. It made us all sick to our stomach’s to listen to each morning’s report of the case. Her husband was devastated, naturally.
As is usually the case in such circumstances, the family generally appreciates any condolances the physicians can provide. And in our case, that is, the residents…we were in fact mostly concerned with completing all the paperwork in a timely manner. Not that this would have been our choice…but the staff docs won’t touch a death certificate (that’s the intern’s job). And who gets to dictate the chart chronicaling the hideous events leading up to her passing? Well, the upper level, naturally.
Somehow, this task was passed to me, the on call resident. By the time I was ready to dictate, the chart was gone…it was with the body down in the morgue. The charge nurse asked Stan, our night shift tech to take me to the morgue to find her chart. This is where the adventure began.
Stan took me down the quiet, carpeted hallways of the nightime hospital, using secret passages and hidden elevators to get to the room that held the key to the morgue. Having obtained it, we proceded down another stairwell, into the basement of the hospital. He walked quickly so that I had to jog a few steps every 50 feet or so to keep up. We were now underground, walking along concrete floors with drains every 100 feet or so. The cieling was low, even for me, making me feel like I had to stoop as we continued traversing the length of the hospital. An occasional maintainance worker crossed our path. Overhead pipes and electrical conduits of all sizes made me feel as though I could bring the whole institution to a screetching halt by just standing up straight and knocking out a few components.
Finally we reached the end of the hall. Stan pressed a black button on the wall, and an electric hum was soon followed by an old fashioned elevator arriving in front of us. Stan opened the door, and pushed the gate aside. The elevator was small and cramped. He latched the gate, pressed one of the black buttons on the inside of the elevator and soon we were seeing floor by floor of the hospital pass by in front of the latched gate holding us safe inside the elevator. The elevator stopped. Stan opened the gate and we stepped out into a small room with a single locked door in front of us. We were at the morgue.
AFter unlocking the door, we stepped inside and looked around. Preserved snakes, sharks and a brain or two lined the walls of the autopsy room. Lockers held personal possessions of the deceased. Stan opened the “cooler”. Inside it was dark, smelled of formalyn and a had slight odor of decay. Three white body bags lay on metal autopsy gurneys. I felt queasy. Stan pushed his way over to the closest of the three and strained to read the tag hanging from the white plastic body bag.
“What was her name?” he asked me.
“I can’t remember,” I replied. I was stunned. How could I be so callous? I couldn’t even remember her name. I pulled my folded signout notes from my front scrub pocket. Already a new patient was in her room. I searched for the morning’s notes and found her name. Stan had finally deciphered it and read it aloud as I simultaneously read the same name from my nearly worn out notes.
This was her. Alone and anonymous. I thought of her husband. He was probably alone as well. I forced myself to stop thinking about her. I was on a mission. Where was her chart?
Stan poked around, looked over some shelves containing various preserved body parts, looked back at the body bag and said, “I don’t think it’d be inside the bag.” Then he spun around and left the room.
I stood there still staring at her body. Something was sticking out from the side…it looked like it could be a chart from the shape of it, but why would they put it inside? I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and grabbed the object, fully expecting to find a stack of paperwork in a plastic binder. Instead I had grasped her cold, stiff hand. It felt like wood and was very clearly dead. Cold and dead. I shrieked out loud, pulled my hand back as quickly as I could and leapt for the still open door where Stan was waiting for me.