I was 19 years old and my pager buzzed on my night table. It was maroon in color and had two buttons, one to silence it, the other to view simple numeric messages. It was early on a Saturday as I struggled to wipe the sleep from my crusted eyes. I squinted as I made out the number on the tiny grey screen. I knew who it was. I knew what I had to do.
24 hours earlier
My new boss sat in his small office on the campus of UCSD in La Jolla. I would be working in the department of Neurosciences for a week. I just had returned from a year in Israel and needed a job, so my uncle offered me one as a lab assistant cleaning glassware and preparing basic buffered solutions in his lab. I would also be sectioning mice brains on a machine called a vibratome (not your normal deli slicer as these sections would be as thin as a human hair, we’re talking about microns here people). That Friday I was called into his office and he asked me how everything was going, to which I responded with a confident, “great.” He then looked at me and asked me a question I figured not many people had been asked, “How’s your stomach?” He then clarified by asking if I could take a little more hands on job. He opened the top drawer and gave me a pager and wrote down a number. He stated that if I saw this number, it meant there was an autopsy and I needed to be at the Hillcrest Hospital ASAP.
26 hours later
I walked in and the immediate thing that hit me was the chemical smell. For people that have smelled formaldehyde, you’ll never forget it. I have the scent etched to the back of my cerebrum. I was in a long (about 15-foot) narrow hallway. I walked as if I was in slow motion and I thought to myself I could turn around and just walk out; tell my uncle that I couldn’t handle it. But I kept walking. I turned the corner and I was in the autopsy suite. There were three people working, one was my uncle. Two autopsy tables were in the middle of the room forming a T. The patient, a female, lay on one of them. The diener, the person responsible for moving, cleaning and dissecting of a corpse, had already started on the patient’s skull. I stood there staring at what was in front of me when someone suddenly said, “you’re late.” My uncle instructed me to suit up in the dressing room and come out to work. Mint green scrubs, plastic apron, forearm covers, blue booties to cover my shoes, two pairs of gloves, surgical mask and a face shield. I stepped out of the changing room and went back out to the autopsy suite.
6 years later
I had completed my final autopsy and walked out into the sun. The smell of everlasting formaldehyde still clinging to my clothes. I had turned in my keys, badge and said my goodbyes to the amazing staff that had helped me grow from a snotty 19-year old kid to a 25-year old man. In my tenure there I assisted in over 100 autopsies, most of them HIV+ patients as that was the grant I was working for. I felt proud of my accomplishments as I did something many won’t ever even dare of doing. But my time in the darkness of the morgue was done, now I was walking proudly under a beautiful San Diego sun. I got into my car and the first song I heard as I pulled out of the UCSD staff parking lot was The Beatle’s “The End.” Irony couldn’t have picked a better song.