That Time I Conducted an Autopsy Without Any Medical Training

I thought it was hilarious when my friend in medical school snuck me into the exam room—until I was asked to lead the procedure.

That Time I Conducted an Autopsy Without Any Medical Training

I angle the blade, looking down at the cadaver. 

Before I press the scalpel into the body, I pause, swallowing saliva and fear. I don’t belong here. 

But I do it anyway, cutting into the skin, which gives way, opening.   

“Here we go,” I say. 

The medical examiner puts down his crossword puzzle with a huff like I’m interrupting his quiet time. He looks at me, waiting. Does he also wonder what the hell I’m doing here? 

“I have to do an autopsy tomorrow,” Briar tells me the night before. It’s taco night at med school, and I’m eating salsa and chips even though I’m not a doctor, nor a medical student like my new boyfriend, Adam, nor a pathology fellow like Briar. 

I’m 24 and just back from a trip to New Delhi and Nepal. Before that, I’d hiked across Iceland and gotten it into my head that I thrived in foreign lands and needed to explore the world before settling down in one place. 

Perhaps I was traveling because of my nomadic childhood. Or possibly I was avoiding employment or celebrating my thesis. Or an even better excuse: researching an as-yet-unwritten novel.  

But I’d met a guy in between tripsAdam even gave up his medical rotation in rural Ecuador to meet me at JFK when I came back from India. I’d thought about becoming a doctor like everyone else in my family, but now I had my sights on writing books and stories, many based on my experiences traveling. 

“It’s first thing in the morning,” Briar says. “Dead guys and coffee.” 

“Oh, I’d love to see an autopsy!” I say, as though a corpse on the table were the Great Wall or The Reclining Buddha. 

“I totally get it  probably good for your novel,” Briar says. 

I nod even though I haven’t started the novel  it’s an idea, unformed, closed off to me like the rest of my future adult life. I can imagine it, but I’m not in it. 

“Do you want to come?” Briar asks.  

I raise my eyebrows. 

“There’s no shame in wanting to see a procedure,” Adam says. 

And I don’t have any, so I nod. “Sure.” 

But I do worry a little whether I can go through with itTo cover, I adopt the casual tone with which Adam and Briar talk about death, shrugging about necrotizing fasciitis and pathological grief and how its just no big deal, as we keep eating tacos. 

By the next morning, I’m wondering what on earth I’m doing sneaking into an autopsy at 6 a.m. 

In the ready room, Briar hands me each item as she dons it herself, until we look like the scientists in E.T. who come in and ruin the relationship between Elliott and the new lifeform he’s befriended. 

Briar warns me that it gets really hot under all the garb — and by the time we’re at the examination, I’m feeling it. Sweat rims my forehead, pools under by bra. I go over the plan in my headDon’t talk. Don’t touch anything. I’m a first-year med student contemplating options for the future. 

It’s the perfect cover. I’m expected to know very little and I can just stand there doing nothing. Having grown up around doctors, I know medical jargon, phrases to throw out there if need be. My undergrad degree in neuroscience might help, but under the multiple protective layers, I’m already shaking. 

The autopsy room is like any other science lab. Easily washable floors, off-center drains, sterile-smelling air that worms its way under my mask. 

“Here you go,” a guy in a black rubber apron says. He’s the medical examiner, the guy who does this all day long, but he’s dressed like a Baker of Death. 

“Splatter protection,” Briar says and helps me tie mine. 

We exchange some small talkDeath Baker sits on a metal stool with the latest Sunday Times crossword. It’s so normal! I can totally do this! Then I turn around. 

The corpse is large, male, naked to the waist, with a white paper sheet over his pubic region and legs. A scale next to him trembles like it’s ready to weigh produce. A large overused black rubber bucket slumps on the floor. It’s the same kind of bucket I used when I worked as a chef on historic schooners and yachts in Maine, trying not to vomit while deveining shrimp.   

I’m not nauseated now. Just a little numb. The door gasps open and a blustery figure in the same Hazmat-style suit comes inHe has a cup of coffee in his hand. People bring lattes to autopsies? 

Briar introduces the pathologist to me. Handshake. It feels normal. How my life would have been if I’d applied to med school the way my neuroscience professor wanted me to. And pathology was what I was interested in  diagnostics, the narrative of the body, the story of how you wound up here with these symptoms, and what it all means.

I’m busy absorbing, all in my head in the exam room. So when the lead pathologist says, “Great! Glad you’re here to run the show.” I just stand there. He continues, “Dr. Franklin.” Huh?

How did this happen? Somewhere in Briar’s introduction, or maybe through my nonchalant posture, the head pathologist has assumed I’m the higher-up. When he gestures to the dead guy and then to me, it becomes clear that I’m not expected to observe the autopsy. 

I’m expected to perform it. 

I learned at a young age that the best travel experiences come from saying yes. In high school I did an improv class. Say yes was the rule.  

So I stand there with my gloved hand holding a scalpel. “Oh, a lefty!” the pathologist says. 

I know I should be shitting myself. Really. But I’m just standing there readying the blade. And maybe I should bolt from the room, but I don’t. I won’t risk Briar’s scholarship and her fellowship. And, maybe more importantly, I can’t kill the guy because he’s already dead. 

So I step closer. 

“What’s the first thing you notice?” the doctor asks.  

“Gin blossoms,” I blurt out and point to the corpse’s nose, which is covered with spidery clusters of red veins. “Rhinophyma.” I study his face. “Alcoholism?” 

The pathologist nods. Briar holds her breath, too much at stake for her to contribute. Am I going to ruin everything for her because I’m too curious? Who treats an autopsy so casually, like another site to see in a travel guide? Briar begs me with her eyes, and I ramble on: “W.C. Fields had them. Let’s see if his liver matches.” 

I’d been a chef on historic boats off the coast of Maine, and I knew about cutting meat. When you butterfly and debone a leg of lamb, you need a steady hand and sharp knife. You have to pull the thick layer of fat away, slicing as you go, figure out where the ball joint is so you can sever it. It turns out human flesh is sort of the same, and it’s with this same sense of detachment that I press into the corpse. There’s a slight pop as the blade goes into the skin, as I make a cut deep enough that we can examine the abdominal cavity. Should I stop? 

I don’t. The medical examiner pauses his work on the crossword to walk over and help weigh the organs. I learn that the dead man is a John Doe. That he had lived on the street. That he had no one to claim his body. 

Had I considered these details, actually thought about whose body I might be carving up beforehand? 

I had not. I remembered my father telling me about his medical school cadaver, describing it the way one might an old friend. One whose every vein and inch of skin he’d studied and held. 

It’s scary to plunge my gloved hands into the dark belly and pull out a kidney.  And just as scary how I disconnect and keep going. Just how long will I spend in jail, I wonder, as we empty the body cavity.   

Where have all the organs gone? I think, singing it as a tune in my head. But the smells have apparently gotten to me because I actually sing it aloud, and soon all four of us are singing, Where Have All the Organs Gone?” — the horror version of the Peter, Paul and Mary hit. 

“Come on — I need a four-letter word for shuttle site!” The examiner slaps his crossword. 

I dictate defining marks and scars, and Briar writes them down. The body is tattoo-free, birthmarked, mottled gray. His chest is hairless, smooth save for my incision. The examiner does us the favor of cracking the rib cage. 

“Brain?” the pathologist says, as though he’s asking if I want salad. 

“Sure,” I say, but as I approach the face, I begin to feel it. Wooziness. Nausea. Dry mouth, cold sweat seeping into my scrubs. Briar mouths, “Breathe.” 

I grip the table as the examiner saws the hairline so we can get inside the man’s head. 

I feel the pathologist studying me, judging. Does he know? Do I not look qualified? Why had he assumed I was? How many dead bodies does he think I’ve slit open and written up? What notes are in my own chart? Boston to London to New York to Maine to Ireland to Mexico to Iceland to India and back to New York, wondering if each place was the right one for me to set down my bag and write that novel. I’d left grad school for boat work, following the wrong boy to the chef job; I’d left cooking for construction and teaching; then I’d gone back to graduate school, accruing debt and piles of words and unpublished papers before heading overseas again. I stare at the corpse and wonder what stories he could tell, what he left unsaid or undone. 

Like an autopsy, writing requires a certain distance, the ability to absorb details and conflict. Part of you is there and part isn’t. Tethered but apart. 

We have to peel back part of the man’s face, like his skin is just a costume to disguise the stuff underneath. I might pass out. Briar sees me wobble. 

“The deep scalp tissue has no signs of bruising,” she says. I am now swaying, drunken zombie at the prom.

“The brain is unremarkable,” the doctor says. Will someone say the same of me? 

“So probably no trauma to the head,” I say. 

“Which leads you to assume?” 

Briar looks at me and raises an eyebrow that suggests we may have pulled this off. 

“This leads us to assume that though there are suggestions of longterm alcohol abuse and superficial trauma to the head, this man died of natural causes,” I say. 

“I’ll sew up,” the examiner says. He eyes the slop bucket, and I realize he’ll dump all the organs back into the body and stitch him up Frankenstein style.  

“Four letter word for shuttle site?” the examiner says, waiting. 

I don’t know the answer. 

What I do know is this: I’ve broken rules and offended the medical profession, the same profession that has supported my family for generations. I am guilty of committing a crime — fraud and probably other ones I can’t name because I haven’t faked being a lawyer yet. 

Yet underneath my curiosity, my fake competency, there’s another feeling: calmI begin to realize why I walked into that autopsy room in the first place.  

I’d been operating under the assumption that at some point my real life would start. There’d be a sign, a moment, some brass band parade that signaled: Here, you’re in the actual adult world now. There, holding the scalpel and seeing a body undone, a brain exposed, I understood: I didn’t need a sign. I was alive. My real life had already begun. 

I could keep traveling, unrooted, dot-to-dot myself across the map, or I could decide, then and there with the wooziness building inside me, to admit I was ready — to write, to be with Adam, not so much settling down, but allowing roots to grow. 

By slicing up a human, I had sliced open the rest of my life.  

Back in the autopsy room, I know I have to remove the layers of protective garb before I vomit. At the door, I turn to the examiner, suddenly getting it. 

“Loom,” I say — the answer to his crossword clue“The shuttle site is loom, as in weaving.” 

Soon after, Briar tells me she bumped into the pathologist: “He wants you to lead another autopsy,” she says. 

And while part of me is still intrigued, part of me will always want to wander, to see what else is out thereto try to get to the guts of the matterI already know what I need to know here. And I have some news. 

Yes, I was nauseated in the room because of the smells and death and anxiety, but also because I was pregnant — a fact I learned days later. And even with student loans and travel lust and a new relationship, I was ready. 

So this is what I tell her: “Say I’ve taken a leave of absence or something. Actually, tell him the truth. Tell him I’m pregnant and can’t take the autopsy smell.”  

I pause, feeling the weight of the moment. “Just tell him I’ve gone home.”