It’s beginning to look a lot like….. I’m fearless?

I am certain that one day I’ll burst into tears. Or vomit. Or run away. Or come over feeling faint, but I just keep shocking myself that I haven’t yet during all the sights the mortuary has had to offer so far. Although twice this week someone has mentioned cases of severed heads or lone body parts and I’m very aware that I’m still so far from seeing everything, let alone even probably a small portion, of what an experienced mortuary worker has seen. I know even then you can be surprised, or get emotional about anything. It will happen one day.

Please don’t take my title seriously, it was just that it rhymes with Christmas! So, yes we were playing Christmas songs in the office this week. There’s something very surreal about checking the condition of the deceased patients while humming ‘I wish it could be Christmas every dayyyyyyy’ to yourself, trust me. Surreal but wonderful. All thanks to the wonderful Magic Christmas radio station, I do love this time of year more than any other. You may think I’m too early but apparently I am happier because of this – see here.

I had more computer training this week on the hospital systems, I weirdly enjoy learning new stuff like that. This was for a patient information system which lists details that we might need in order to check certain things. Even better that I bumped into a friend who has worked at the hospital for years but I hadn’t seen since I started. Nice to see a friendly face. I’ve got a lot more training coming up so I’ll let you all know what I’m doing and how I’m getting on. So far I think I’ve made most of the systems training I need, but still a long way to go otherwise.

On Wednesday, my manager was giving a talk about the Coroner to a group of students and I was lucky enough to be able to go along and watch. It was really interesting to learn about them and the capacity of their work. I already had an awareness before in regards to the Treasure Trove act in the UK which governs what happens if you find valuable items, in your garden while digging for example. I knew being an archaeologist could link to this job somehow!

In a mortuary sense, the Coroner oversees any deaths which cannot be given a cause of death by a doctor initially. Generally, if you have seen a hospital doctor or your GP in the last 14 days of your life and they can say how you died, you do not need a post mortem or an inquest into how you died. The Coroner manages all other cases, will determine if a post-mortem is necessary, and will give clearance for deceased people to be buried or cremated once they can say what caused their death. It was a great talk outlining the background of the Coroner, their role and what their main aims are. I may well talk about this more in future if people are interested! I also bumped into another friend who attended this talk and has worked at the hospital for a long time but I’d not seen yet. He laughed at me for getting lost because I literally just know the basement and how to get there from the entrance.

It got very dark in the morning and evening this week, I made a joke to my partner that every day I go to work in the dark, spend all day in the basement and then come home in the dark. However funny, it’s true and it feels a bit weird. Might have to get out in the sunshine if it’s sunny this weekend! Although today I did have an impromptu visit to the dentist in the morning because I completed destroyed my lower left first molar. I might be being a bit dramatic there, but I also might need a root canal so maybe not.

Sunrise this morning across the park on the way to the dentist

Main highlight of the week was getting signed off as competent to receive the deceased into the mortuary. This means I am able to check them in and book them in on the computer too without supervision. One very important step in the right direction! Hopefully I’ll soon be deemed competent in this way for releasing the deceased too and then I’ll consider myself having the basics completely down.

Next week I have Fire Warden training, I’m attending another event at Barts Pathology Museum and it will be the start of December so I definitely won’t feel bad about listening to Christmas music anymore. Thank you for reading and your kind comments so far, keep the questions coming as I’m always happy to answer!

MG x

A Puncture & A Prize

I don’t even know where to start with this week! It’s been another busy one. The mortuary is only getting busier now, there’s still quiet-ish days where we can catch up on things but generally I can see the busy time creeping in.

Mortuaries are known to be busy in Winter, with the last couple of months and first few being the busiest. This is down to illnesses like flu, respiratory problems and other diseases being more prevalent at this time. It’s also because those are the coldest months and a cold snap can see a peak in deaths. Also, as much as I love Christmas completely and utterly, it can be one of the busiest times for a number of sad reasons.

This week also saw me witness something I thought would have really upset me, but it didn’t half as much as I thought. I’m not saying I’m made of stone, I do have a heart somewhere and I do get upset. I guess, as I always told myself, I accept that by working in this environment I will see things like that. I won’t go into detail but it was a tragic thing. I came home that night, briefly sat and thought about it for a while and surprised myself.

As the title suggests, there was a little cycling incident this week that tore me from my good mood that day! There is a junction on my ride home that if I time correctly I can not only get up to about 20mph (it is at the bottom of a hill I will mention) but I also sail through the traffic lights much to many a driver’s annoyance. I enjoyed that part a lot, until I was doing just that this week (and probably part pretending to Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok because I’d seen it the night before) when I heard a loud HISSSSS. I stupidly looked down and then realised my tyre was completely flat, the ride had become very bumpy and I was about to fall off. Fantastic. Plus, I was only halfway home and it was dark.

However, mood lifted back up high that evening when I found out my team had won an award and prize from the hospital trust for all their work. This is brilliant, and it’s wonderful for a hospital to recognise the hard work of a team like ours. We have a trophy on a shelf in the office now that makes me smile. Unfortunately I couldn’t go to the ceremony because of being new to the trust when they were nominated; but I’m still so proud of my team and manager for what they have done and what I continue to help with going forward. Well done to everyone I work with for their hard work!

The week ended on Friday with an interesting day. Two post mortems took place in the High Risk Isolation room and I was asked to write the notes for (which I think I’m well known for loving doing now…). One individual was a ‘decomp’ – someone who is in a state of decomposition due to being deceased for a period of time, and the other had been embalmed already – where the fluids of the body are replaced with chemicals for the purpose of preservation.

When I was asked, I was a bit concerned about the smell. As discussed previously, the smells associated to these kinds of post-mortems can be, well, pungent I think is a good word. One of my colleagues had said about shallow breathing earlier this week, and I realised that I already do this around particularly stinky situations so in I went with a pen and a will to get through it.

It really didn’t smell as bad as I thought. Probably because I was at the side of the room and not up close with he patients; but still I think these things are better than your imagination tells you! I completed the notes and realised that the pathologist no longer spells words out for me anymore or talks slowly to allow me time to catch up. Not a problem, I have a knack now of scribbling it all down quickly and legibly. Slight concern when I’m asked to write something like ‘ischemic heart disease’ and my brain second guesses my spelling. I bet she laughs at my attempts sometimes!

Next week will be the beginning of week 8 of my time there. It’s gone insanely fast but I’m still so glad I made this move. As always, any questions please ask. I’m considering doing a Reddit AMA for those who know what that is, so watch this space. Thank you for reading and have a great weekend!

MG x

The Modern Prometheus

Yesterday I went along with Laura D. to a talk at the Barts Pathology Museum on the topic of ‘Making the Monster- The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’. The talk was presented by Dr. Kathryn Harkup and was around an hour long with a Q&A at the end. Laura asked me if I would like to go a few weeks back and I jumped at the chance to not only see her (we stopped working together when I got the mortuary job and I miss seeing her face each day), but also to explore this fascinating subject. I read Frankenstein a long time ago, probably when I was a moody teenager who was in love with Byron and discovered gothic literature. It’s a brilliant book if you haven’t read it, but I’ve never really thought about the context of when it was written and what was happening in science at the time.

The talk explored the different examples of scientists and experiments which took place before and around the time when Mary Shelley thought of the idea for the story. I didn’t know that it came off the back of trying to think of ghost stories while on a very rainy trip to Italy with her husband, Byron & Polidori!

Dr. Harkup brilliantly linked the Resurrection men with the anatomy schools and experiments that were taking place with the events of the time. It really highlighted the way a fear of ending up with your corpse being examined in this way could create a real sense of horror around the novel. She also showed that by creating a Monster in this way, Frankenstein had actually completed something that many had sought to at least replicate in part in real life. I also enjoyed the link to the fact a defibrillator is a similar concept to the experiments carried out by Luigi Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini where electrodes were placed on the nerves of the deceased to make certain parts move again. When we have post-mortems I quite often see the defibrillator pads stuck to the patients.

All in all, a very strange part stuck with me from this talk- there was a question right at the end regarding how long the life expectancy of the Monster would be considering it was made of parts of other people of presumably different ages. This led to a discussion of how pig heart valves are used to replace or support the heart valves of living people with disease. These replacements are shed of any pig cells and accepted by the body, however they only last approximately 15 years. A pig lives for around 15 years. Interesting stuff! It stuck with me because only earlier yesterday I had been doing the notes for the Pathologist during post-mortem and we had a patient with a synthetic heart valve which fascinated me. I might have a further look into this for a future blog article, definitely food for thought!

I’m loving my job so much in this sense because I feel like I learn new things like this each week. I’ve also been inspired by this talk to get a new copy of Frankenstein and remind myself of how great it is. Thanks to Carla Valentine for hosting such a great night at the museum, and apologies to you for freaking you out with my Snapchat ghost pictures! Massive thanks to Laura for finding out about this evening and booking it up. We’re back there in a couple of weeks for another talk so I’ll update you about that too after going.

I will be posting an update of my week at some point this weekend, keep an eye out for it and thank you for reading as always.

MG x

Links to mentions above-

Dr. Kathryn Harkup can be found on Twitter @RotwangsRobot (huge kudos if you get the Metropolis reference there!!) and her new book on this topic is available for pre-order on Amazon here

Barts Pathology Museum Website

Carla Valentine can be found on Twitter @ChickAndTheDead

Information about Byron, Polidori, Galvani, Aldini & all the other cool little facts can be found via google and Wikipedia if you just search!

Decimation of Pomegranate

It’s been an eventful week in the mortuary, I’ve been cracking on with learning the ropes of ‘receiving’ and ‘releasing’ patients either into the mortuary or out of it into the care of funeral directors. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s hugely important to ensure that the correct paperwork is in place and that everything is recorded correctly. 

It certainly felt like this was the week I started to do more things either on my own or with minimal supervision. Which then meant I made a couple of small errors, and I’m my own worst critique so I took this hard and spent far too long worrying about it! 

On Thursday afternoon I had a few hours cleaning the post-mortem room. One of my colleagues had done most of the cleaning as she worked in the morning, but the patients who had been examined that day needed to be put back in the fridge, the table used by the pathologist needed cleaning and the floor needed to be hosed down and mopped. It sounds basic but there was a lot of other things going on that afternoon so it was the first time I had really done this on my own, and I felt more accomplished afterwards than doing anything else this week. Proud face moment for me. 

In relation to my article a few days ago, I am beginning to look at the various paperwork in relation to the releasing of patients, and in particular I sat and studied the cremation papers used. I also helped put together a flow chart for people to understand what paperwork is required, when and the process behind figuring this out. I think once I can crack this and recognise the various forms I’ll be well on my way to knowing it well.

The title of this article is a random and direct quotation of my boss who ate three pomegranates in one day at his desk and made quite some mess in doing so! Think Desolation of Smaug but more fruit related… however it highlights the fact our hospital has a great fruit and veg stall out the front by the bike racks and car park (another and by no means the last shameless mention of the fact I cycle to work). 

Lastly, the picture below (apologies for the nakedness) comes from my friend Adam who I’ve mentioned previously. He had a photo shoot this week for a campaign to celebrate scars and his surgery scar, and is using this as part of his London Marathon fundraising for The British Heart Foundation. Adam told the photographer about my work and what I’ve done to get to where I am and the below meme was produced somehow. If you would like to sponsor Adam you can in the following link-

Personally I prefer to cover up a bit more, so here’s a photo of me in my Winter cycling gear. My new Cambridge Mask is really saving my lungs from the pollution on the road, but I love the fact the only bit of me on show is my eyes! 

Some exciting things happening in the next week; continuing with the training, a visit to another hospital and an evening out with a friend I’ll be certain to write about. Hope you all had a great weekend, would love to hear from you as always. 

MG x 

Why you should have heard of ‘Alkaline Hydrolysis’

Have you? Really cool if you have! If you haven’t, please let me to give you a brief introduction to the process which is also known as ‘water cremation’. 

We all know about burials and cremations, and the fact it’s quite accepted to decide to have either happen to you once you die. I happen to live near the South Essex Crematorium where all of the family I know who are deceased have been interred in various places. It’s pretty much tradition in my family to be cremated and have a little plaque with your name somewhere on a wall there. In fact, writing this has reminded me I’ve not been for a while and should pay them all a visit soon! This week in the mortuary I learnt a bit about the legalities, paperwork and the process of cremation- it’s fascinating!

Cremation involves the deceased being burnt in a furnace at very high temperatures until nothing is left but bone, ash and any implants or other devices. Hopefully not pacemakers or other cardiac implants as these can cause explosions and should always be removed first! The fire can take anywhere from an hour to three hours to produce ‘cremains’. These cremains are ground into dust and are versatile in that they can then be kept in an urn at home, scattered at a location of your choice, interred somewhere, or even turned into a glittering stone for jewellery. It’s been seen for a long time as more sustainable, it uses less space in total and a much cleaner way of handling the deceased. 

A Roman glass cremation urn from the British Museum- an alternative to burial for thousands of years (photo taken on a recent visit).

However there’s a new kid on the block of funerary practices known as Water Cremation or Alkaline Hydrolysis. Alkaline Hydrolysis is a process where the deceased are placed into a solution of water and lye (lye is a chemical that is caustic in water). This is then heated and moved about until its produces a liquid of all the squishy bits of the person and leaves the bony remains behind. The bones can then be ground into dust and leave something a lot like traditional ashes. The whole process is easier, uses less energy and is overall better for the environment through less fumes than traditional cremation, and no harmful chemicals unlike burial where the embalming chemicals can be released. 
Currently it’s not widely available and is not legal in many places where it is not a recognised method. However, it seems to be thought of as the future of practices, and appears to be a step forward. Personally, one of my huge fears is drowning so I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I don’t think I’d much fancy being set on fire either, and I guess it’s not exactly a problem once I’m dead! 

For more information see the below sources- 

Wikipedia page – Alkaline Hydrolysis

Business Insider UK Article 

South Essex Crematorium 

What’s lye?

Ashes into Glass – just one company (local to me) who can create jewellery from cremains 

Pacemaker explosions article 

Please do comment or get in touch if you have any thoughts as I would love to hear from you, and thank you for reading as always! 

MG x

Halloween, a Death Cafe & The Animals of Farthing Wood

Another week is nearly complete and I’ve officially been working at the mortuary for an entire month. It’s weird because in some ways I feel like I’ve been there a lot longer, and in others I still feel like an imposter who’s snuck in and will be found out at as a fraud. I think this was particularly felt this week because, due to staff sickness, the first three days were just me and one other colleague holding the fort. Multitasking to the max! I very quickly learned the process of checking people out so I could just go and show the paperwork to the the APT who was helping conduct the post-mortems and then grab her to sign the book and check the IDs of the patients. Each day was a lot of running about, answering phones and the various doorbells that go off. Each day also came with a sense of exhaustion, but alongside a satisfaction that I had done it. Luckily by Thursday things had not only calmed down but another member of staff was back so luckily it wasn’t so hectic. A crazy but fabulous and confidence boosting week.

In the middle of all of that, Tuesday was Halloween! A few years ago I purchased a pair of skeleton leggings from eBay and have never actually worn them because they were ambitiously small for my food loving figure. However, I found them again and decided as long as I had a long Top they looked fine. Then I had a great idea, skeleton facepaint and some cat ears- I could be the strange logo I drew for myself on here! So I was Mortuary Gem for the night, and while watching half of the Bake Off final. Pretty sure I confused some kids who wondered why a skeleton was wearing cat ears, but the parents who came along apparently liked my facepaint. 

My leggings, awesome Halloween nails and some facepaint I did in about four minutes and twenty seconds…. ta-dah it’s Mortuary Gem!

The most exciting thing that happened this week was that I attended my first Death Cafe on Wednesday evening. As I mentioned before on here, I’m very interested in hosting my own Death Cafe at some point- if you have no idea what I’m going on about check out their website here. I read the booklet with guidelines on how to host one and it recommended attending one before you try, I guess to get a feel for how it should run and the kind of things that can happen. I looked up the upcoming dates and luckily there was one for a couple of week’s time about a 40 minute drive away so I arranged to go with some colleagues and a friend. On the night, those colleagues were all tucked up in bed recovering from various maladies so my friend Rachel and I headed off to the pub where it was being hosted not really knowing what to expect. 

All in all, the evening was all I had hoped for. There was lovely, friendly host (also called Rachel!) who I had emailed before the night and who welcomed us with open arms and some great topics about death. The two hours flew by in a range of conversations including (but not exclusively) how to talk to children about death, how you would wish to be buried and what happens to homeless people when they die. It worked out lovely funnily enough, the friend I took along is a special needs teacher and had a lot in common with most of the other people there. I’m certain this shaped much of the conversation so meant it was quite a unique experience, but it was brilliant! It also led Rachel and I to discuss a favourite subject of ours which carried on into the car journey home.

Once upon a time, when I was small, there was a cartoon on television titled The Animals of Farthing Wood. On the face of it, it appeared to be a lovely little story about some wildlife and their venture to move home from a quaint wood to another wood, or a forest, or something that I can’t quite recall. What I can remember, however, is the really quite horrific deaths that happened to some of these animals that you had become quite attached to before they ended up murdered, run over or in a pie. Okay, I might have thought I remembered them in a pie, but I was wrong. No, it was just roasted in the oven. Yep, poor little pheasant we loved was carried on a platter and had been roasted. We discussed this as part of how children think of death. While we were certain that the Disney form of death where people disappear and never return is not healthy or realistic, we also came to the conclusion that maybe a violent and graphic depiction of death of this nature was not suitable either and probably traumatic. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this! Also, the full pheasant story is here, in case you were wondering. 

Roasted pheasant anyone? 

So that was my week, completely tiring and wonderful in every way! Please do let me know your thoughts of this article in a comment, or a little like. If you have found me or know me from Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram then please contact me on those. I will update once I know with details of my Death Cafe and any future developments. Take care and thank you for reading as always, 

MG x 

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