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Being A Death Investigator During COVID Was A Nightmare

Being A Death Investigator During COVID Was A Nightmare

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was three years into a career as a medicolegal death investigator. Employed by the county coroner, I was sent to the scene of a death to take photos, collect evidence and conduct interviews.

COVID-19 changed the work environment for a lot of people, and medicolegal death investigators were no exception. Instead of working from home, however, we were asked to wear our surgical masks up to five times before disposal instead of being provided N95s and to use minimal gloves when working in the field. Yes, really. No, it doesn’t make sense.

While we were not saving the lives of the sick, we were getting up close and personal with human anatomy in a way many people don’t. We had our hands in mouths and in blood. We shoved swabs into noses and, for a time, rectal cavities, so that we could test decedents for the virus. For a while, we drew blood and vitreous on-scene so doctors wouldn’t have to (COVID-19 remains detectable after death ― long, long after death).

Despite this career being challenging, it was rewarding. I left a four-year job as a behavioural therapist for children to work part time for the coroner in my hometown before I switched to a coroner’s office in a larger city. My decision to move was met with confusion by a lot of people in my life, but there was one person who was not at all surprised: my grandfather.

When I was a kid and had sleepovers with my grandparents, they would sit me down in front of the television, turn on “48 Hours,” and challenge me to solve the crime before the killer was revealed at the end. My grandfather, a retired firefighter and EMS, would hand me a legal pad and pencil and tell me, “make a list of clues ― what do they tell you?”

I loved to solve puzzles ― to encounter a mystery and make sense of it. As a death investigator, I got to unravel layers upon layers of mysteries. What does the scene tell me about the circumstances of the death? What does the human body do beyond the scope of what we typically see?

The reaction I received from people who learned about my profession during COVID-19 was “wow, you guys must be busy.” I can’t remember how early in the pandemic that my response switched from, “COVID-19 is a natural cause and doesn’t fall under our jurisdiction” to simply “yes.” Just because there was no need for us to investigate pandemic-related deaths doesn’t mean the pandemic didn’t affect our jobs ― and us.

We were overworked, understaffed and hopelessly unprepared. We had FEMA cots in our morgue because there were too many bodies and not enough carts. People got sick, overtime was not permitted due to government budget cuts, and some of the investigators on the busier shifts were out at scenes from the start of their shift to the end. Then they came in the next day to a stack of reports to write. This is because the pandemic was not just about dealing with a virus ― it was a physical, emotional and psychological plague.

In 2021, my city experienced our highest homicide rate on record: 205 homicides in a Midwestern college town of 900,000 people. It sounds like such a small number, 0.02%, until you’re the one placing them in a cooler. And this number only applied to those deaths in the city limit — across the county, there were many more.

In 2021, suicide rates in my county also rose by 10% from the year before. Our office created a new position specifically for deaths by suicide as well as a similar position for overdose deaths, of which we had 859 in 2020, a 48% increase from 2019. This was especially alarming given the Midwest has been in the midst of an opioid epidemic for several years.

We used an online database to track what are called OD spikes. To be considered in a spike, we needed at least six overdose deaths within a 24-hour period. We would sometimes have these spikes multiple times in a week, especially around the time stimulus checks dropped (we presumed this was a result of extra money to spend on drugs).

These increases sparked theories in our office about the way they coincided with the pandemic. We see patterns in our cases with days of the week and with holidays, so why not this? In 2020, people were anxious ― in 2021, they were desperate. People lost their jobs, their health insurance, their access to a therapist or their ride to the methadone clinic. People were trapped indoors under stressful circumstances with people they loved, people they tolerated and people they abused or were abused by. It seems logical that these pressures might cause them to do things that might not otherwise do ― things that put their lives in danger.

Prior to this point, I had no issues dealing with the stress of my job. People like to tell me “it takes a certain type of person to do this job,” and that’s true, but seeing dead bodies is only a small part of what’s required from us. We also talk to families, comfort them when we can, and allow them to project their grief on us. We are strangers in their home on the worst day of their life. They either love us or hate us, but no one is happy to see us.

I have always been able to take it in stride. I go into a scene and I am a scientist. I talk to the families and I am a therapist. I go home and I turn off and don’t let myself think about what I’ve seen that day. But during COVID, suddenly the trauma of it all started to leak out of the carefully labeled boxes in my brain where I had packed it away. The tofu I hadn’t pressed thoroughly enough became brain matter in my frying pan. The plastic bag in the drainage ditch on my run was a human foot. My job was everywhere. When the world shuts down and your job kicks up, that job quite literally becomes your life.

I started to consider leaving the field after my first shift of the new year in 2021. During this shift I became the last person to hold a dead infant before they went to exam, cradled two sisters under the age of 10 while my shift partner helped put them in a double-lined body bag as a COVID precaution, and placed their father’s body on the opposite side of the cooler because I couldn’t handle the thought of them being next to each other after what he had done to those girls.

In the course of that one 10-hour work day, for the first time in my life, I felt hate beyond typical anger, questioned if evil could actually be real, and finished my shift with an ache at the base of my spine that was somehow both sharp and dull.

I clocked out, got to my car, and choked on my sobs until I could breathe well enough to drive home. It was 8 a.m., the winter air was crisp, and the tears dripping from my eyelashes burned. They tasted bitter, the kind of tears that come from a job that requires you to go into a stranger’s home and clean up pain that you didn’t create. Was I a death investigator or a trauma custodian? I could no longer spot the difference.

Our office’s response to the stress my co-workers and I were experiencing came at the end of the shutdown: they brought in a therapy dog for us to interact with every few weeks. I usually settled for sitting on the floor of my supervisor’s office and crying instead of going to see the dog. A dog is nice, but they can’t tell you that they have stood where you stand and have seen what you see.

I talked to my doctor and was given a formal post-traumatic stress diagnosis for which I am still being actively treated. After being in the thick of the pandemic and feeling like I had no true resources, I started to look elsewhere for employment. The managers at our office had proven they weren’t open to feedback despite giving us frequent prompts to provide it. I guess hearing “do better” wasn’t the feedback they were looking for.

I started off applying to similar jobs, most of which required some aspect of responding to an emergency or ensuring justice is served, until one day I took a serious look at my life. My prospects were promising, but the exhaustion that had started seeping into my bones felt like it would never end. So, I listened to my body. My boyfriend got a job in Florida ― sunshine and sandals sounded like a nice change from gray Midwestern skies and bloody boots. I found a job working for a law office and made a massive step in a different direction.

The nightmares haven’t ended. In fact, for a while, they got worse. When I stopped forcing myself to compartmentalise to get through the day, the walls came down and the trauma rushed in. I went from being the “certain type of person” everyone thought I was to being someone who jumps when they hear a car backfire and can’t finish a meal if the texture reminds me too much of a dead body.

There are some days that I miss it. I miss science and interpreting findings, helping to identify people and bringing closure, and talking to the doctors at the office to get their opinions on the strange and mysterious things I saw. I really miss the team I worked with ― people who understood my fascination with what most people consider macabre. There were a few investigators who left the office before me for a variety of reasons, and I’ve heard a couple have left since. I don’t know that all of their reasoning was the same as mine, but whatever it is, I understand.

I can’t blame these feelings on a virus or even a whole pandemic, but the trends that I saw left me hollow. I think of this a lot when people deny that COVID-19 was real or dangerous or when they say there it had no actual effect. I want to scream ― and in my head, I do. I want to tell them I’ve seen the tests, I’ve seen the proof, I’ve washed the evidence off my uniform after a long shift and sometimes found it on my skin later when I saw the water puddling around my shower drain turn pink.

I didn’t save lives, and I probably never will even now that I’ve left the field, but I did see lives destroyed. I saw people dying, people trying to save them, and people trying to afford the dead one last dignity after those efforts proved futile. We are told that things are returning to normal ― whatever normal may be ― but for some of us, normal will never again be an option.

M. Bridgette Golden is a former death investigator, proud native Midwesterner, aspiring business owner and first-time story writer. She is currently living out her days as a Florida transplant and works for a public defense attorney in hopes of affecting the way the U.S. legal system views mental health.



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