MG Goes Upstairs to the Lab!

Yesterday I visited the Histology Laboratory at work. Now, before I started working here I had no idea what histology was. Probably a bit ridiculous but I’m a real believer in the fact you don’t know things when you’ve just never come across them before and clearly my path had never crossed anything relating to histology before! For those like me without a clue, histology is the study of looking at tissues in microscopic detail. It’s what happens when a biopsy is taken, for example, and is then studied in detail to determine what is going on.

It is important for me to understand these processes because often during a post mortem histological samples for testing will be requested by the pathologist. They will normally take pieces of organs and place them in pots with formalin (a solution of water and formaldehyde) or in what is known as a block and then into the solution and we will take these samples up to the lab. That is where my knowledge ended, but now I know what happens after and it’s really interesting so I thought I would share!

We take our boxes up to the lab and then leave them on a shelf. In the box are the samples and a form that we have filled out with all the details of the patient and the samples taken. Next, someone from the lab will check that the samples in the box match what is described on the form, any discrepancies and these are sent back to the department to be checked. The guy showing me around says this happens all the time but I’ve never seen any returned to us before- clearly the mortuary is better than other places!!

The samples then move onto another area where they are described in detail and measured, and then placed into blocks if not already. The block is like a small plastic case with a metal lid, and these have holes all over. The blocks are printed with a label saying what they are and an individual number given to each one to identify it. Next, a machine known as a processor is loaded with the blocks. This works to remove any water from the samples, then fill them with a chemical called xylene and then it finally removes the xylene and fills the block with molten wax at 60 degrees centigrade. The processor can work overnight on a 12/13 hour cycle or for shorter or longer if necessary. The blocks come out of this machine with the sample in a block of wax. The blocks can be stored up to 20 years at the hospital.

After this, someone scrapes the sides off of excess wax and the blocks are passed on to another group of people. These people place the wax blocks into another machine called a microtome. The microtome shaves off a slice off the block that is 3 thousandths of a millimetre thick. Teeny tiny. The blocks are held on ice before they go into the machine and then the handle is turned and tiny slices are taken off. A tiny slice is removed and then floated in a bath of water at 50 degrees centigrade which flattens it out and removes any crinkles. The fact it is just below the molten temperature is intentional. A glass slide is placed into the water bath and picks up the tiny slice, and that is what we know as slides! I noticed the microtome we were using had a sticker with Black Widow (member of Marvel’s Avengers) on it and I queried only to be told they have to name them all separately so they know which machine they are referring to!

One more stage is left with the machines and that is to dye the tissue in the slide. You may have seen pictures of cells where they are a real deep purple colour. That is from the dye, were the dye not applied you would really struggle to see anything under the microscope. Slides complete and dyed, they are matched back to the form from the start and then passed on to the consultant to examine and determine a diagnosis. Right before they are passed on a quality check is performed to ensure the slides show what they need to and are of a good quality. It’s a very intensive, thorough and effective process that happens in this lab! There are 21 people who work there and they process work for 12 consultants. The slides are kept for up to 15 years at the hospital for reference in case they need to be looked at again. 34,000 samples go through this lab each year and they are insanely busy from what I could see on my short visit.

I’m hoping to go back and see some more of what happens in the lab, but for now I really fee like the insight I gained was invaluable. You really don’t realise what happens behind the scenes and the work that goes in until you see it for yourself! I hope you found this an interesting as I did and have had a good start to your week!

MG x

Death Comes to the Cakery

What a fabulous evening last night, I could not have asked for it to go better. Twelve people in total came along to the Sweet Rose Cakery for two hours of death discussions over tea, coffee, milkshakes, wine and cake. There was a lot of cake! Firstly, I would like to say a huge thank you to the staff and especially Caroline at the Sweet Rose Cakery for letting us host our Death Cafe at their venue when they really had no idea what it was they were letting themselves in for! You’ve been so accommodating and I really can’t thank you enough. Secondly, a thank you to all those who attended too, including Nicola who we have never met before and we practically pulled in off the street on her way to her Nan’s birthday party(!) I hope you all had a good a time as you all seemed too and got as much out of the evening as you thought.

I think the evening was an utter success and I’m so pleased. We covered various topics kicking off with your ‘digital legacy’ thanks to Jeanette, which is something everyone seemed really interested in. We talked about what happens to Facebook once you die, and also what would happen to your household finances especially if you are paperless and have no evidence of provider in your home. It’s things like this that I think are hugely important to discuss.

We also covered a range of things including organ donation, mortuary workers, the local green burial ground, the cost of funerals, the organisation of funerals and teaching children about death in schools. I am always pleasantly surprised at how the discussion evolves with peoples viewpoints, counter discussions and open questions to the group. I’m also pleased that at times the discussions naturally broke off into smaller groups and then came back to the whole group once again.

Such a lovely bunch of people, a pleasant and fun evening to share with you all. We seem to get a good mix of different people from all walks of life, I did love how several of you last night are in the teaching profession. Education is key if we are to open up about death and smash the taboos surrounding it. If you attended and have any feedback at all please let me know. Also if you have any questions about the Death Cafe or would like to attend in future please please do get in touch. I can answer any questions or concerns you may have! Lastly, a huge thank you to Rachel for co-hosting and just generally being quite fabulous.

Have I mentioned that there’s cake?

Details of the next Upminster Death Cafe will be announced soon so keep your eyes peeled. Death chats aside, you really wouldn’t want to miss out on the cake trust me.

MG x

p.s. I can’t take credit for the title unfortunately, that is from the genius with words that is Jeanette!

Reconstructing Faces in Eastbourne

Last Friday the 8th June, my manager and I rushed out of work at the end of the day from the mortuary and bundled into my little yellow car. I plugged Eastbourne District General Hospital into Google Maps and off we set on a nearly two hour journey towards the south coast. We were not in for an evening of fish and chips or seaside fun but for something far more exciting. We were attending the AAPT South East Regional Event which was a Suturing and Cosmetic Application workshop.

I wasn’t certain exactly what we had in store for us when we were done travelling. I was singing along with Magic FM while pondering what we might get up to. I had images of suturing up fruit like oranges or bananas in my head but really I wasn’t sure.

Upon our arrival at the mortuary in Eastbourne we were greeted with friendly smiles, some familiar faces and trays of Subway sandwiches which were very welcome after a two hour drive and having eaten nothing since lunch about 6 hours previous. After some time chatting with the other attendees we headed off to change into scrubs and get into the post-mortem room for the workshop.

Ben from Dodge was hosting the event and had laid out some of his different products and tools that he uses in his work. There were several sizeable cases of equipment around, and two post-mortem tables with a covered up ‘lump’ in the middle. We first were shown a slideshow with a few videos and pictures of the products we would be using. In effect, they are a powder and a liquid that are mixed to produce a paste or putty depending on consistency. This can then be used to fill or recreate parts of the body with a spatula or your own hands. In order to keep it pliable and clean, another liquid called Dry Wash is used and a brush is used to ‘feather’ the substance into the surrounding area and blend it in. We use Dry Wash at the mortuary currently but to kill any maggots or destroy any fly eggs on the people we receive from outside. Lastly the powder is applied to the top of the area and the product is allowed to set into a latex like texture.

Pigments, brushes, tools and cosmetics

After the presentation we were divided into two groups and each group shown to one of the post-mortem tables. The lumps on the tables were revealed to be lifesize plastic model heads with a series of injuries including missing ear lobes, lips, lacerations to the nose, brow and scalp. We were given some of the product to use and told to have a go at one of the injuries present.

Poor plastic head man with all his injuries!

My group looked at each other in the way all groups do when asked to do a task in a workshop and then hesitated about who to go first. My brain goes quite quickly in these situations from ‘No way am I going first’ to ‘Oh go on then’ so I stepped forward. Trying to decide which injury to tackle was difficult because I didn’t want to attempt one that was too ambitious but I also didn’t want to pick a super easy one that wouldn’t be a challenge whatsoever. I settled on a cut of the bridge of the nose that was slightly more difficult in that it went across the face and had some tricky angles.

Mixing the product is harder than it looks, you need quite a lot of powder to make not very much of the pliable substance. I filled the gap carefully with the spatula and looked at what I’d done, there still was a dent in the nose just now a smoothish one compared to a ragged cut. Ben came over and explained that it could be completed in stages and I could come back to it once the original layer has hardened and apply another one on top. So I stepped back and let the other people in my group complete their injuries while I waited to go back to mine.

While we were working, Ben showed us how to add coloured pigments to the product to match the skin colour closely, so we ended up with pink, yellow and brown patches on our head where we had tried these out. He also showed us how to make a slightly stiffer substance so it could be moulded into shapes like lips and ear lobes. I did go back to my nose and I was pretty pleased with the result in the end!

Not bad right?

To round off the talk, we had another presentation from Ben but this time about suturing and the different types. He explained how each of the sutures work and how they differently close the skin. I had only really seen one stitch before so this was really fascinating to learn about. He also showed us some of the different cosmetics used and how to build up colour on his own hand using the different shades available. It made me laugh that my own hand was so bruised from my traumatic blood test I could’ve done with some of that cover up!

I had a great evening at Eastbourne District General Hospital and I would like to thank all of those who organised, attended and made it a fabulous time. Definitely want to attend more things like this in future!

Hope you’re all having a great week so far and thank you for reading.

MG x

I DO Have A Soul!

I knew it! By knew it, I actually mean I jokingly doubted it while getting a tad worried that I had a heart of stone and nothing would ever upset me besides Supervet or YouTube videos of dogs being reunited with their owners. However on Thursday I actually got quite emotional and had a little cry at work. It took me completely by surprise, I had no idea it would but there I was in my full PPE having a quiet sob and being quite grateful no one else was in the room at the time.

I’ve written previously about knowing one day something would get me. I mean, I’ve seen everyone get emotional at some point, but the things that I thought would get me never did. In our line of work we are constantly surrounded with emotions. You deal with your own, the people you work with, the other people coming by, the highly emotional phone calls we can receive and especially the visible and audible emotions of the family visits we have. I can only describe it as this big ball of emotional energy that throws out waves every now and then. The whole time I feel you have to keep tabs on what situation, who you are speaking to and how you are feeling. I’m still adjusting to this and learning that switching about like this can be exhausting on busy days, but so very rewarding too.

The mortuary was insanely busy on Thursday, between viewings and releases and other things happening I got left to clean up the post mortem room in the afternoon. This is totally fine, I put on some music (Led Zeppelin followed by James were my choices that day) and I got on. In some ways I like working on my own, probably comes with the territory of being an only child. There was a particular patient for post mortem who had their own clothes and items with them which we had decided to put back on them after the post mortem was complete. Quite often clothes are torn or damaged in other ways prior to us receiving them into the mortuary so we remove them and put the person in a shroud. If the clothes are nice then it’s good to either keep them with them or put them back on.

As I was on my own I had asked for help to put the patients back in the fridge but I knew from the number of times I’d heard the doorbell go that no one was able to come in and help anytime soon. I decided to have a crack at dressing this patient myself and laid out all the bits and bobs I needed to do so. I found it a lot easier than I thought, carefully moving limbs about and lifting body parts to dress them. Once I’d done I tucked their item under their arm and stood back. Then in utter bewilderment to myself I started to cry.

I guess I was chuffed I’d made them look so peaceful and dignified. I was delighted I’d done it all myself for the first time. I might have still been a little emotional from the traumatic blood test the day before (that’s a story for another time but you definitely shouldn’t end up with your own blood all over your knees). Yet really I can’t explain why I cried, it didn’t feel sad or bad, I just needed to have a little cry.

Not exactly how blood tests should go… that’s my own blood on my scrubs.

Another week in the mortuary complete, the brain count is up to 30 and my training is coming along well. Next Death Cafe is coming up in less than two weeks and some other exciting events are starting to get lined up for the summer. As always, please do get in touch if you have any comments, questions or just want to chat over anything at all.

Thank you for reading and take care!

MG x

Singing to the Dead

Tuesday being the worst day of the week aside, I’m in a fairly positive and upbeat mood this week so far. It struck me yesterday how many families we get visit their relatives and sing to them. It’s happened to me on a few occasions now and I think it’s lovely. I know that there are some religious songs that are sung but it’s difficult to tell, although I’m fairly certain one family came in and just belted out a few of their relatives favourite tunes.

How sweet it must be to be able to sing to your deceased relatives and feel that connection together and with them. Personally I’m not from the kind of family who would do that, plus I’m utterly tone deaf and tend to only sing when alone in the car, drunk or simply to annoy my fiancé. However, we do play songs at the funerals I have been to, some hymns and some just meaningful songs. My Nan had a bit of Rod Stewart playing at hers because Nan really liked Rod Stewart, it wasn’t just a random choice. Music can be very powerful, and I think that song will always stay with me as my Nan’s funeral song. I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about this or your experiences?

Coincidentally, Laura D sent me this passage from a book earlier she’s reading today advising that I should read it, the passage mentioning singing to a relative! It’s all connected! And I will read the book once she’s passed it on, it’s All That Remains by Sue Black.

Page 85- All That Remains photo thanks to Laura D!

Otherwise, for the past week I have been looking at the anatomy of the neck and trying to learn all the structures. Like with anything, the neck is made up of a lot of different sets of bones, muscles, nerves, veins, arteries and other features that mean I’ve really just been hugely overwhelmed. I have found myself looking at muscles on a diagram though and trying to flex them as I’m reading. I must look rather special sat there rubbing the side of my head and clenching my jaw trying to trace the muscle down my face.

I had a chance to complete a y-section on a patient recently and I found myself fascinated by the structures of the neck I revealed. Usually we will perform a midline incision starting from around the collar bones so that there is minimal disruption to the appearance of the person. I am determined to learn the names of the muscles, glands and other parts so I can name them as I go. If you need me, I’ll be staring at diagrams of the neck from various different angles with a confused look on my face.

We have a busy rest of the week ahead, lots crammed into the next three days I will update you with at the weekend!

Take care,

MG x

MG Reflects on BlogConLDN

It’s a sunny day in East London, and the Internet blogging masses descended upon the CEME centre in Rainham for BlogConLDN. I found this event myself through Eventbrite when searching for things to do while my fiancé was away that were in the local area. It seemed ridiculously coincidental that a blogging convention would be on, five minutes down the road and I would have no other plans.

I was skeptical at first, my brain assumes that a blogging convention would be full of fashion and beauty bloggers who would look slightly down on a death blogger turning up and masquerading as one of their kind. I’m not the kind of person to just turn up and see; so I did contact the organiser Scarlett beforehand just to make sure I would even be welcome!

Turns out, it was a pretty cool event. The CEME centre (that my phone keep autocorrecting to Cemetery, or course) is a nice venue for an event like this. Within minutes of turning up and noticing there was an awful lot of very fashionable people, I was approached by a lovely book blogger who asked if there was a map or programme of events. Alas, there wasn’t but we did head to get a complimentary glass of prosecco and have a little snoop around the stands. Not long after this a friend of hers arrived, a fellow book and also lifestyle/travel blogger who now blogs full time. I’m in awe of these people who are able to do this. In a world of others who blog about travel, health and beauty alongside the main bulk of fashion bloggers it must be so hard to get somewhere but these people have the confidence and the ability to really make a go of it. They headed off to a talk about Instagram, and we parted company but it was great to meet them.

I was asked a few times what I blogged about. I didn’t receive a single negative response which was surprising but also so very lovely. Many jumped to the fact my blog helps people and informs, which really put it all into perspective for me. The most perspective I got from today however, was a session I attended called Showing Up Online Without Anxiety hosted by an anxiety coach called Sam from A Happy Mind. I knew all along I wanted to attend this session from first seeing it advertised, and I’m so glad I did.

Sam talked everyone in the room individually through why we do what we do, who we do it for and how we know we are the right person for it. Even just having these pointed out to me and reflecting on this was valuable to my mind. It even justified why I had turned up to the event. I’m very thankful for this! She also came up with a tag line for me ‘Death Can Be Divine‘ which I adore!

Right now I’m sat in my garden, with my cats and having a cup of tea reflecting on it all and I can honestly say I do what I do to inform and educate. I do it because I want to reach out to those who need my help, whether that be understanding a process around death and dying or gaining some sympathy from someone who knows exactly what they are going through. This is is the purpose of my blog, and now the purpose of the Death Cafe too. My self printed ego mug seems ever so slightly less egotistic in reflection because I’m proud of doing what I do and how I got here. I deserve this mug just a little bit. I also got some inspiration to look a bit more into what I do with photos on here but that’s for another time!

Big thank you to those that organised, hosted, attended and chatted to me at BlogConLDN today. I had a blast even if I was an unstylish death blogger amongst many cool and trendy people.

MG x

I Just Really Like Talking About Death

Has it been the longest week or what? Writes the person who has had nothing but short weeks forever and has a five day week next week. Please feel just the tiniest bit sorry for me, or maybe that’s too much to ask!

It possibly felt like a long week because I’ve been non stop. I’ve also had a massive dip in my confidence due to not being all that great at evisceration this week. I felt like I lost all the skills I had mastered in the past few months but I’m certain it’s just a blip and I’ll be back soon. I had to get more help than I’ve needed in a while, and they weren’t really difficult cases.

One lovely thing that happened however, was the chance to show around a student nurse for a morning. It’s times like that when I realise that I bloody love my job and I love talking about it nearly as much. We get people approach the mortuary on a fairly regular basis asking if they can come visit, for some people this can just be a curiosity around what we do deep down in the basement. However for others they visit as part of their studies or work placements so we get a few students coming down. I think the first things people notice are that the mortuary is bright and clean, most people imagine a dark, dingy place with dubious smells and stains. I believe they also notice how friendly we are as a team! Each person has their own quirks but each of us is really cheery and friendly.

It was great to have someone to show what we do to, we each took some time with her to explain what we were doing which was nice and she asked some great questions. What I thought was very good was the fact she really just wanted to know what happened to the patients after they left her care. She thought it odd that people just were taken off to this place and no one really understood what happens after they last see them. I can see why this is the case, as people don’t like to think about what happens once you die, but I also think this is so unhealthy and people should know what happens. I can’t help but think that with that knowledge there would be far less fear from people around death itself.

With my colleague we showed her the booking in process, the cleaning of patients who have ‘purged’ (have fluid coming from the nose and mouth) and the releasing of patients to funeral directors. At the end of her time with us I gave her a quick tour of the post-mortem room (not in use at the time), the isolation room used for ‘high risk’ post-mortems and the other little rooms that come off of these. Doing this made me think of how much I have learnt in my eight months at the mortuary and how well I was able to answer her questions.

Relating to how much I like talking about my work, the next Death Cafe has been confirmed! On June 19th at the Sweet Rose Cakery in Upminster our second event will be on from 7-9pm. I’m excited to use this space as we have it all to ourselves, plus there’s wine and cake available. I think I’ll be very much a home there! More information can be found on our page here. If you would like to come please get in touch and let me know, or if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Wish you all a lovely weekend! I am attending the very exciting BlogConLDN tomorrow to learn how to make this blog better, keep your eyes peeled for any upcoming changes.

MG x

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