Disaster Mortuary

One thing I am very used to is a quiet mortuary. Generally there’s only a few of us working about, either on our own work or in groups. It only ever gets loud if there is music playing or when we do training with the nurses, but we have control over the scenarios and what is happening. On Thursday, it felt very chaotic even though it was a very organised exercise being performed, it was just not being performed by our team. We had a big group of police staff and members of the UK DVI team descend on the mortuary for an exercise in disaster management. Let me explain further!

UK DVI are the UK Disaster Victims Identification team. As you might expect, they work to identify the victims of any incident considered a disaster, such recent examples in this country would be the Grenfell Tower fire and the London Bridge terrorist attacks. Not only do they work on disasters in the UK, but they also work alongside or with teams from other countries around the world when disasters occur, particularly when UK nationals are involved.

An excerpt from the UK DVI website explaining themselves in their own words which can be found here

The police staff were divided into teams and worked in these groups to practice recording details and taking evidence from the deceased of a mock incident. This involved not only the staff wearing full protective equipment as in they had shoe covers, Tyvek suits, face masks and gloves taped to the sleeves, but they also set up our post-mortem room in the style that they would use with individual stations set up for each victim.

A glimpse of our post-mortem room where you can see three of our four stations and the observation gallery at the back of the room

From my perspective, which was observing the entire thing and giving assistance where it was needed, the most odd thing about the whole exercise was that the victims of the mock incident were alive actors who were fully dressed, placed in a body bag with a couple of blankets to lay on and were examined. It is very odd, noted by all the mortuary staff, to see someone lying on a post-mortem table and observe their chest rising and falling as they breathe. One even had a coughing fit at one point!

The teams practiced taking the evidence they needed, in this case taking photographs of the victims and removing their belongings and clothes to be placed in evidence bags. They also went through the paperwork they would need to fill out, the team split into ‘clean’ members who were completing the paperwork side of things and the ‘dirty’ members who were handling the tools and the victims themselves.

I feel very lucky to have been able to witness this exercise being completed and I hope I have taken away correct information to describe the above! In the event of a disaster near to our location, we would become the disaster mortuary for this purpose. Both the other trainee and myself agree that while it would be horrible and we don’t want anyone to go through it, it would be fascinating to see an incident in progress from the mortuary side of things.

One very odd thing, in all honesty when all the police staff were dressed up in their protective gear it really reminded me of that scene at the beginning of Hot Fuzz where Simon Pegg’s character is trying to find his SOCO (Scene of Crime Officer) girlfriend in a sea of people dressed the same. While laughing at this comparison in my head I recognised a pair of eyes peeking through below the hood of a Tyvek suit. Turns out it was a friend from a long time ago that I haven’t seen for about a decade! We had a great catch up afterwards and it was brilliant to see them, it’s so funny how life plays out sometimes.

Aforementioned scene from shot Fuzz, the girlfriend or ex-girlfriend actually played by Cate Blanchett in a little known cameo!

Still one very exciting thing to happen this week that I am also very nervous about. I will announce what is happening once it’s complete and I’m happy to share. If you have any questions about the above, please do get in touch!

MG x

Death Anxiety

I finally feel back in full swing and like I can handle the year ahead whatever it may throw in my direction. It’s only taken me over two weeks to get that New Year feeling. As promised, I would like to update you all on the goings on for the first half of this week, especially when there are some more exciting things left to happen.

On Sunday, Rachel and I hosted an event which I originally called ‘Death In The Afternoon’ but I may have to change due to a very popular podcast of the same name having been released since I decided on it. This has been a while in the making, trying to host an event similar to Death Cafe but at the weekend and in a much more relaxed style. It was at my house and all I asked was that attendees supplied the cake and I would supply the tea. I trialled this with some close friends and we played the Death Deck game that I have mentioned before. I think it was an absolute success and I hope those who came would agree, we laughed and had some excellent discussions about various aspects of death. I learnt some very insightful things about my friends too!

 

Improvising necessary when you only get two of some of your letters with your lightbox

Amazing cakes including the gravestones made by my friend Alison!

Yesterday was our monthly Death Cafe at The Sweet Rose Cakery in Upminster. I expected the numbers to be low due to the weather and the time of the year, however we also had the added factor of half the town being closed for gas works and all the buses on divert! All of that aside, we had a small but very cheery group of people get together and although we certainly went off on far more tangents than normal we had some interesting topics. Rather poignantly, the topic of death anxiety came up and I thought it was something to discuss further.

We talked about death anxiety, originally in relation to our own worrying about loved ones and imagining their deaths when we rationally know that’s not what has happened. I know I am guilty of this myself, my other half goes to work on a motorbike every day and if he hasn’t text me by midday I do start to get quite panicky that something has happened. My Mum made a very good point that this is a symptom of having a mobile phone, when she and Dad were first together they didn’t have them and he went to work with most days no contact until he came home. I guess the constant contact we have with people can be problematic in many ways but this is a big one.

In general, those that attended who were younger then went on to a conversation about Facebook and social media. It was clear that we are of a generation where communication comes very easy when we want it, but it comes with many disadvantages too. We might panic when we think we are being ignored, we could be the victim of trolls, and we worry about what has happened when communication doesn’t happen. We discussed worrying about our own deaths, our loved ones deaths and general anxiety around this. I can’t comment for everyone but I know that I have worried, even before I had my job it is important to note, on numerous occasions about death. I’m prone to worrying about my own death if I feel unwell, or at least it does cross my mind. Part of my reasoning for doing and liking my job is it’s almost like an immersion therapy. Surround yourself with something you’re naturally scared of and it becomes familiar and less scary.

A delightful bitmoji image I found once!

Something that also came from the (probably soon to be renamed) Death In The Afternoon was the comment from one friend that ‘Well, Death is just so final’. We all laughed in the obvious nature of this, but actually I think that’s the main reason for the anxiety around it. There’s no going back. There’s often nothing that can be done. It’s understandable why it’s scary and causes anxiety because it removes any control we have, and I think most of us do like to have control. Maybe by working in death I feel like I’m regaining some of that control.

Big day tomorrow and an interesting weekend coming up. I’m glad I could get this in today and hope you’re all having a good week so far!

MG x

2019 (Attempt Number Three)

Those keeping up with my life, and I don’t blame you if you haven’t because it’s fairly boring at the moment, will know that I spent all of the last week in bed after waking up in the early hours of Monday morning with the winter vomiting virus that seems to be doing the rounds at the moment. I won’t go on about it for long, only that I learnt something very interesting while googling from my sick bed. Having a form of vomiting bug can make you lactose intolerant for a period of up to three days due to the imbalance of bacteria in your stomach. I discovered this the hard way when craving a cup of tea and it made me sick again, tried switching to soya milk and it worked a treat. Basically, a virus wiping out your whole system can end up causing your stomach to be unable to process dairy, hence why they always say you should have dry toast or similar to start with. Or a good way to inadvertently try Veganuary without realising.

As the only things that visited me while sick, an incredible amount of cat photos were taken in the last week. Also googled ‘can cats catch norovirus’ to which the answer is no!

However I am now feeling more human, stronger and more positive than I have done in a while. It’s only taken me 11 days into the new year to sort myself out. Just as well really, when next week there’s a few things going on that I really don’t want to miss.

To start with, this weekend I am trialling a new concept for an idea I had last year which I will update you all on soon. Tuesday next week (15th January) is the first Upminster Death Cafe of 2019 which I am very much looking forward to and, although I fear it will be a little quieter than normal owing to the time of year, I can’t wait to see all the familiar faces or any new faces that might appear.

Next Thursday at work we have an exciting day lined up which I will also be blogging about once it has happened, then next weekend I have something hugely exciting hopefully happening that I can’t wait to tell you all about. So, for now, apologies for being so secretive but I cannot guarantee everything will either happen, go to plan or that I will describe it effectively until I know more. Rest assured I am blocking out the following week, primarily to rest and recover from my busy week, but secondly to blog about it all.

That’s all from me this week unfortunately. It’s hard to stomach going from such a quiet week to an incredibly busy one (no pun intended) but bear with me. I hope you’ve all had a much more successful 2019 than me so far!

MG x

New Year Burn Out

I won’t dwell on this for long, but I decided to check in with everyone to just say Happy New Year and I hope all is going well so far for 2019. Personally, not had the best start I could hope for but I’m feeling a lot better than I did on New Year’s Day evening luckily.

New Year’s Day had a wonderful sunset however!

I think a combination of festive pressures put upon me partly by other people but mainly myself, contributed towards a bit of a hopeless feeling. I experienced a massive bout of insomnia which affected my work, which mutated into a fear of not sleeping, that then became the reason why I wasn’t sleeping. I had a couple of major things in my life go awry towards the end of last year that I thought I could cope with. It just turns out that while I was coping with the big stuff, I was not coping with a lot of the smaller things like managing a social diary or, very simply, keeping on top of my washing (having clean clothes was a big worry for me at 3am for some strange reason).

I stumbled across this Moomin cartoon which made me smile, too often I am like Pimple (but not about jam)

Sometimes the pressures and strains of life can get too much. I think this is why things like ‘Self Care’ and ‘Mindfulness’ are so popular now. I worry that they are seen as trendy and just a bandwagon to be jumped on, but I never for one second think that. I honestly believe that taking time for yourself is almost more important than eating the right foods and doing exercise, or at least should be the priority. Mainly because if your mental state isn’t in the best place, nothing else will really work out.

Without getting too bogged down in non-mortuary related things, I can honestly say that due to not being at work there isn’t much else to say! I worked a few hours today, the opportunity came up and my manager asked if I would like to go in. I was pleased to be asked, I find going back after a bout of illness, especially poor mental health, incredibly daunting. I would probably end up back in a pattern of not sleeping and worrying. The fact I went in today and saw some colleagues, did some work and it all went fine, has relieved a huge pressure in my mind about tomorrow morning.

We can so easily burn ourselves out it’s unreal. However always remember we’re only human. We’re only flesh and blood and the things that make us who we are. Burning out, or not being able to cope, is nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of. By talking about it openly, I help myself and I hope I help others who may be going through a similar situation.

MG x

Laters 2018! Hello 2019!

Looking back on the last year, I can only be shocked at how far I have come and the things I have done and seen. Although I’ve not had a break between Christmas and New Year, the way the days have fallen it’s still been really confusing as to what day it is and whether I need to be up before dawn or not. To be honest I seem to wake up around 6am any morning these days even if I’m not at work, my body clock is finely tuned apparently but my Nan told me she still wakes up at 5.30am because she used when my Grandad went to work. I’ll be forever waking up at 6am then.

Boxing Day Shenanigans at my Aunt’s House, excuse the festive double chin

We had a lovely, quiet Christmas in our house and saw lots of family over the two days. I’m lucky to have family to share it with, but also happy with the quieter moments watching Christmas specials in my pyjamas with the fluffy ones and my fiancé. This year I have certainly learnt to enjoy the quiet times, almost more than the busy times. I’ve discovered I need to not book myself up for anything more than one day in a row, the break being necessary to recharge. I’m not sure if that’s a post-turning 30 thing or the tools of having an active job, possibly both! Not a bad lesson to learn and carry into the new year, to be sure take or make time for myself if I want to function.

In the last year I gained my trainee position, I have been granted a place on the training course for 2019, been made Student Representative for the AAPT and, most importantly, kept my brain count going to reach a milestone of 70 brains removed. My understanding of anatomy is slowly getting there; I’m definitely able to recognise structures and features easier now but there’s a long way to go. I can’t wait to start my course and meet all the other students, I’ll be heading up to Hartlepool in February. I feel very at home in the mortuary, I now love giving the talks and tours to the nursing staff which I never thought I’d be comfortable with. I am very proud of myself for the things I have accomplished, I can see in myself that I am happier in general due to my hard work and patience.

Importance of taking time for yourself, as long as it includes snacks

Looking forward to 2019 still, there’s something exciting happening at work in January which I can’t wait to experience. I have more meetings with the AAPT booked in to attend, plus in September is the annual AAPT conference which will be in Edinburgh. I’m sure it will be an exciting year all round and I’ll continue to update you all with my progress.

Just a couple of my awesome presents

For now, I’m taking some time this weekend to rest and consider how I’m going to make it to midnight on Monday night. My grand plans for today involve reading the books I received for Christmas, eating chocolate and watching the new Black Mirror on Netflix. I’d like to wish you all a lovely New Year’s Eve and enjoy however you see in 2019. Thank you for reading and I hope you will visit here again soon!

MG x

Christmas Celebrations & Alastair the Gerbil

Christmas is a time that I absolutely adore, but I do know many people that utterly hate it. While I love this time of year, I completely understand that it can be a really hard time for people. I would like to start this seasonal post by asking anyone who is struggling over the festive period to reach out to their friends and family who I’m certain will be more than happy to help them, and if you don’t feel that you can do that then reach out to anyone, myself included, because I’m certain help can be found even in the darkest places.

As you may have seen, we had our Christmas meal last week which was brilliant and exchanged our Secret Santa gifts. My Santa obviously knows me very well with my Harry Potter, mustard colour, fur and fox themed gifts. They’re perfect! The food and evening was brilliant and just the best time.

Secret Santa knew me very well….

I was lucky enough to have Thursday and Friday before Christmas off, big plans turned into quieter plans which was no bad thing and it meant I had time to catch up on sleep and various pre-Christmas tasks I needed to do but in my own time. I was so tired last week that I made some stupid mistakes at work I still feel terrible about. I’ve gradually learnt that I cannot do my job well if I’m tired or compromised otherwise in any kind of way so will try to ensure I don’t feel like this at work, at least try to prevent it as much as possible.

Yesterday evening I sat with my poorly little gerbil Alastair who died tucked up in a fold in my jumper where I was trying to keep him warm. He’d been looking unwell for a few days and I think I knew this was coming soon. I wanted to mention this, not only to show that I am not immune to death and I had a good cry when I realised he had died but also that pets are one way in which we can experience death in our everyday lives. Especially with tiny animals, they’re not in our lives for long but this teaches us to appreciate the time we do have and understand that death is a normal part of life.

Poor little Alastair had a good life, grew old and died peacefully.

The last week I reached the milestone of 70 brains! I had aimed to do 100 in my first year as a trainee APT but I think 30 in the next 9 days is a tad unreasonable even if it is a busy time of year!! For those who don’t know I’ve kept a count since I started of how many brains I have removed. This is not necessarily a count of how many eviscerations I have done, either due to the fact we don’t always remove the brain or that I may have done a brain for someone else who has opened the abdomen. I think a post about when we do and when we don’t remove the brain might be interesting for the future so let me know if that’s something you would definitely like to read about.

70 brains removed! My little post it stuck to the wall next to my desk.

Lastly, no responses to what Mystery Tool Number 3 was so I’ll assume you all knew and it was obvious! They are bowel scissors! The curved tip of the lower blade is to ensure the edges don’t get caught when cutting through the bowel and open it exposing the mucosal surface inside. The reason why we do this sometimes is to show the pathologist this surface and therefore any inflammation or indications of illness or disease that might be there. The bowel could be examined for diverticulitis, colitis or other diseases in this way and those named are the ones I have seen so far. The bowel is opened, washed thoroughly of it’s contents and laid out for the pathologist to examine. I’m hoping once I’ve done this a few times I am able to imitate my boss who can do this with no mess and display it perfectly laid out for examination.

Mystery Tool Number 3 Revealed! Bowel Scissors!

I will leave you all with a final reminder that this is a tough time of year and to look out for those who need any extra help or assistance in the coming weeks. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all, I wish you all a peaceful and enjoyable time however you decide to spend it. Also I spare a thought for those who work over Christmas, particularly those who keep the NHS running 24 hours no matter what day of the year.

MG x

Three Mystery Tools, Two Decomp People & a Council Meeting in the City

I’ve been living in a bit of a bubble the last week or so. I feel utterly exhausted constantly the reason for which I’m not sure if it is because I’m genuinely tired, the b12 tablets are not working or, self-diagnosed, I have some degree of Seasonal Affected Disorder. Just all round I have no energy for much at all, which is proving rather challenging!

Busy doesn’t even really cover it. We are the busiest we have been for a long time. I’m regularly feeling my Fitbit buzz to tell me I’ve hit 10,000 steps well before my working day has ended. Half of that is running lengths of the mortuary at the other hospital to either answer the phone or the doorbell which can be at either end. I try not to miss people so it often involves sprinting.

On Tuesday we had two ‘decomps’ to post-mortem, and myself with the other trainee were tasked with completing them. One was not as bad as the other, by not as bad I mean not as decomposed. There tends to be stages which range from just what seems to be a smell and a change in skin colour, to full on massive changes in the body. I won’t go into masses of detail as always, but I will say that I am rather proud of us coping with the smells that we encountered, plus we received some lovely comments from the pathologist who completed the post-mortem (comments regarding the work, not the bad smells). I do feel I will remember for a long time trying to remove a brain which is effectively mush. It really reminded me of an episode of izombie, you will know what I am talking about if you have ever watched that programme and I highly recommend you do if you haven’t.

Looking fabulous as always in a Tyvek suit and wellington boots. The end outfit is this plus an apron, sleeve protectors, gloves and a face mask.

On Wednesday, I attended a council meeting with the AAPT. It was the first real action I’ve had as Student Representative and I really had a great time. It was fabulous to meet everyone and put faces to names, plus everyone is just really nice and friendly which is only to be expected as a profession known to have a cheery disposition! Lots of things were discussed, and actually it was fantastic to hear about the latest goings on plus particular concerns with our industry. I feel like I have a thirst for knowledge and involvement in these things and I am so lucky to have the opportunity to be a part of the council. I also notably got to meet the organiser of the training course I will be beginning in February and he was really encouraging about working together going forward. I’m super lucky to have the support from my manager and trust in undertaking this venture and I hope this start means I can be involved with the AAPT for a long time.

Yesterday we had no pathologist available so could not do any post mortems, therefore myself and the other trainee cleaned nearly every door and wall in the mortuary in the morning, of which there are loads! Armed with a bucket of cleaning solution and cloths we went round scrubbing down all the surfaces we could. One thing I try to always tell people when they enquire about pursuing a career like mine is that a large part of this job is cleaning. I can’t lie, I’m not the biggest fan of cleaning but I do find that with some music, and/or a colleague to talk to, it’s actually quite a fun part of the job in a weird way.

My manager won an award this week! Congratulations!

This week we had the fabulous news that our manager had won an award he was nominated for in the category of Care and Compassion. We are so proud as a team of him winning this award and also how we work together to provide the care we do. This is largely in relation to the training we provide to nurses and others but also the hard work put in to provide the best care we can. Winning awards like this is great because it highlights the work done in the mortuary that people may not necessarily be aware of or want to think about.

Mystery Tool Number 3- what could they be for?

Today we have our Christmas meal out in the evening which I am looking forward to, and we are also exchanging our Secret Santa gifts. I’ll be sure to let you know what I get. For now, I’ll leave you with Mystery Tool Number 3!! Yes, they are scissors, but why do they have that rounded end and what are they used for? Current or past mortuary workers need not reply thank you! I hope you are all enjoying the festive season and have a good weekend.

MG x

December So Far (Plus mystery Tool Number 2 reveal!)

We are well into the flow of December and I feel like making up my own 12 days of Christmas. Needs work but this is what I have so far…

I know it’s awful, and I’m the worst for thinking I am remotely funny just because I crack myself up! Work has really ramped up and we’ve had to be quite on top of things. It’s times like these I think I feel like I’m treading water not very well to try and be as useful as possible but struggling. I got particularly annoyed with myself for needing as much help as I did during the eviscerations on Tuesday when really I need to take a step back and realise even the well experienced need help every now and then. It went much better today and I feel a lot better about how well it’s going luckily. I do get terribly frustrated with myself sometimes.

We’ve been full on training this week with the usual nurses and healthcare assistant training which I always find fun. I’ve said it before, but I never imagined myself feeling comfortable standing in front of a big group of people but death is something I could talk about for hours if you’d let me.

Of course, at Death Cafe they do let me! We had our December and final Death Cafe of 2018 on Tuesday which was a very intense but successful evening. We had a lovely PhD student pop along for some research which was brilliant and we discussed some very hard hitting subjects along with some lighter topics. Not every event needs to be or is as intense as this one and I think it really depends on who is present to influence the kinds of discussions we have. The dates are just being finalised for January and February and I’m working on the flyers as we speak. I’ll release them out as soon as they are confirmed and if you would like to know more or attend please get in touch!

Mystery Tool Number Two….

Well it’s what you’ve been waiting for- Mystery Tool Number Two is…… a skull key! None the wiser? Let me explain. A good guess was it was used for some kind of scraping, and I can totally understand why however that couldn’t be further from the truth. While this nifty little thing could be used to scrape, and sometimes we might use tools for other purposes when the need demands it, it is actually used in opening the skull once sawn open. After the scalp has been opened and folded back over the face, and the skull has been cut so a section is loose with the bone saw, the sharp end of this tool is inserted into the groove made and twisted to force the cut apart. It can also be used around the cut section to loosen or open parts not entirely cut. And that’s the skull key, a handy t-shaped device! We have ones with a longer section where the sharp end is and a short one too. I have no real personal preference over which one I use yet but I know that some do.

Keep an eye out for the upcoming mystery Tool Number 3, the dates of the next Death Cafe’s and any improvements to my 12 Days of Christmas!

MG x

Formaldehyde

Recently I was sent a link to a news article by my other half. In all honesty, I saw a link to a news website and automatically assumed it was something relating to Brexit so my eye roll was long. Imagine my surprise at finding out it was this link titled ‘EU embalming fluid ban ‘to change funerals’’. I’d like to discuss my thoughts on the ban and the article itself. I have googled to find more information on this and the internet is a bit sparse with any other articles or sources of information but try it if you would like to know more.

My initial thoughts were that, pleasingly, this could influence the decrease in embalming cases that I long to see. We seem to have an assumption as a culture that embalming is always necessary and I will discuss with anyone who will listen why this is not the case. Later my thoughts and concerns turned to other aspects, sentiments that some people I know also agreed and echoed on social media. The article also has some statements that are simply not true, or are opinions presented as facts.

My main concerns are as follows. Firstly, like many others, it alarms me that the BBC journalist seems to think is not only important but also true that it is dangerous to view a non-embalmed body. This is not the case, and particularly damaging when you consider we never embalm and hold family viewings on a daily basis. It also oddly presents the idea that embalming is a traditionally Christian idea and the ‘ban’ threatens this Christian way of burial, not a concept I think is really relevant.

Secondly, the Formaldehyde they speak of is not only used in embalming but in many other situations. My job and many others come into contact with the chemical in the form of formalin. Formalin is a solution of around 40% formaldehyde that we use in order to preserve samples taken for the purposes of histology but also whole organs for examination. We come in contact with it not necessarily on a daily basis but often enough. Other jobs I know particularly include anatomists and anatomy schools who would not only embalm cadavers but also take samples and organs too. Not excluding the funeral directors we work with too. We all take precautions like wearing gloves, masks and breathing apparatus in order to protect ourselves when we do use it. More on Formaldehyde and it’s uses can be found here – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formaldehyde.

I would like to state that I am not against embalming completely. I do believe there are situations when it is appropriate and should be used. I have even been involved in preparing one person in a situation where I believed it was worthwhile. What I disagree with is the almost roll out of it as standard practice and the lack of knowledge in the public of what is actually involved and what they are paying for. What I am trying to say is that in a situation where a family are not viewing their relative and they are being cremated or buried relatively quickly, I can only see the deceased person being embalmed as a way for the undertaker to make some extra money. I cannot see why a family should be encouraged for it at all in that scenario. The BBC article is inflammatory in that it only reinforces the thoughts that embalming is a necessary process, and it should never be said that you can only view the deceased if they have been embalmed.

Back to the actual ban, it would seem that not only is there no actual ban, the funeral industry has been granted three years in which to figure out an alternative. Something I hope goes in the direction of reducing the harsh chemicals used routinely but I fear will only lead to another chemical taking its place. What this means for academic and clinical practice situations I am not certain and I’m unable to find any real information. I can only think of keeping my eyes and ears open for any information going forward, so if you have any extra information please get in touch! I think the ban is actually on the use of formalin and there will be restricted use allowed but I would be interested to see what this entails.

For now I’ll leave you with Mystery Tool number two! Any guesses (still I will only accept answers from people who do not or have never worked in a mortuary setting please!) on what this might be and what it could be used for?

Mystery Tool Number 2- to be revealed soon!

MG x

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