Samantha hesitated. She looked at Dr. Falkner to see if he was joking. He was not. She knew part of the job in her pathology residency training was to perform the autopsy. But this was not just an autopsy—it was a COVID-19 case. In fact, all of the bodies the men were bringing in and stacking up were all COVID-19 cases. Soon the room would be full of COVID-19 dead bodies. She couldn’t imagine that she would be opening all the bodies from the plastic bags and doing the things Dr. Falkner expected her to do. What did he say? Counting, identifying, tagging, documenting the names and the origin of the hospital and cataloging the specifics of the dead? Samantha was gifted in remembering and memorizing things, but she was not sure whether those were the only things Dr. Falkner said.
As she was trying to untie the ropes around the head of the dead body, the two men came back again with another body on a gurney behind Dr. Falkner. They were doing their own work without paying too much attention to the two doctors all suited up as if they were used to their routine jobs. They did not look like the construction workers Samantha traveled with on the boat, although it was very difficult to tell who was who, with masks covering most of their faces. The ropes and the plastic bag were soaking wet from the rain and it was difficult for her to untie the rope.
As she finally pulled the rope around the neck toward her, the head moved in her direction. She wanted to scream.
She had heard the horror stories from her friends who had done autopsy rotations before her, so she was somewhat prepared to face this. However, when she actually touched the dead body through the plastic bag, she was very tense, scared to death and horrified.
Dr. Falkner looked at Samantha and was disgusted. He took over and untied the ropes himself. Then he unzipped the plastic bag. The head of the dead was revealed. It was a morbidly obese Caucasian male. Big fat face, gray, thin unwashed curly hair all tangled up, eyes closed, mouth biting the cut-out ventilator tube and the thick, hardly recognizable neck due to fatty tissue all around.
As Dr. Falkner unzipped the bag all the way to the toes, Samantha recognized there were pink fluids under the shoulder and the side of the body where she was standing. The body was clothed in a hospital gown with spotty wet areas. She could not tell whether it was water from the rain or body fluid. A cut urinary catheter was attached to his penis. The right toe had a toe tag with his name, birth date and a medical record number.
“Now I want you to take the plastic bag out, but very carefully. Make sure the fluid does not get on you,” Dr. Falkner said to her. “On my count of three, you’ll need to pull the bag away. Got it?”
As soon as he said that, he was already moving the dead body toward him by grabbing the arm of the dead from Samantha’s side with the intravenous (IV) needle still stuck in the arm with blue tape, rotating and lifting the body as if he was hugging the body. Rigor mortis had already set in the body, and it was turning toward Dr. Falkner as he moved it. Samantha grabbed hold of the plastic bag and pulled it toward her, hoping not to spill the pink fluid collection on her jumpsuit.
Dr. Falkner grunted, “Now pull…pull!” but Samantha could not get a firm grip on the other side of the plastic zipper to pull the bag out.
“Oh, shit! I need a guy resident!” he was frustrated, putting the body back into the supine position. He stood there for a minute, then asked one of the men who was transporting the bodies to help. Samantha moved to one side, letting the other guy to come over and take her place.
“I am not going to do that Doc!” the man responded. “You guys are all geared up, and I’m just wearing this piece of shit—what do you call this? Hazmat suit? No way, José! You think an inmate like me has no value? I am not dying with the virus!”
Samantha was shocked to hear that those men were inmates. She knew Hart Island had a correctional facility, a prison, but she didn’t make the obvious connection that it was the inmates who were working to move the bodies and digging the mass graves on this island.
“All right, all right!” Dr. Falkner said. “Get back here! We are going to do this slowly. What was your name?”
“Yeah, Samantha, Sam. I am going to call you Sam. You are going to pull the bag out on my count of three. Ready?”
Samantha got closer to the body and this time she was grabbing the bag on two sides, one from the head and the other from the mid-body.
“Okay. One, two, three!”
She pulled the bag out, and the pink fluid spilled all over her arms and on Dr. Falkner’s abdomen and pelvic area.
“Shit!” he said letting the fluid drip all the way down to his foot. “Fucking fat people!” he added. The plastic bag was pulled only partially; a job halfway done.
“One more time, Sam. Ready? One, two, three!” Samantha managed to successfully pull the plastic bag all the way to the groin area, of course spilling some more of the pink fluid on the floor.
“Okay, good, the rest is easy,” he said, while he was putting the body back on the table. He walked around toward the feet of the body and pulled off the plastic bag.
“Don’t worry, the serosanguinous fluid won’t penetrate through your jumpsuit. It is air and liquid tight.”
Oh no, it is serosanguinous fluid, Samantha thought. It was most likely contagious then, as it would be filled with the COVID-19 virus. In fact, it could be in highly concentrated form.
“Wait a minute, Dr. Falkner. I am not ready to do this,” Samantha said.
There was a moment of silence after that. He looked at her intensely through his face shield and waited for her to say something more.
“I am not ready to do this. I know I am supposed to go to a morgue for autopsy rotation for a month but this is not what I expected,” Samantha said mustering up her courage. She was in fact very upset with the current situation. She did not sign up to be a physician, a pathologist when she had to put her life in danger by taking the risk of getting infected with COVID-19.
“You think I like this?” Dr. Falkner responded angrily. “Who the hell do you think you are? We are in this shit now, and even I have no choice. We have to bury these bodies as fast as we can before they become more infectious. God knows what would happen if the bodies get blown up with intestinal bacteria and aerosolize all over the world.” He paused for a few seconds, then continued, “You are doing a service to this world, and to New York City. Now, get back to work!” He was shouting by this point, and even startled some inmates.
Samantha wasn’t sure what she did afterward. They were very quietly doing the work. She cut open the hospital gown using scissors, and inscribed the weight, characteristics of the dead body, name, age, gender, and race onto a piece of paper Dr. Falkner provided. It was difficult to find the name of the hospital where the body came from. There was no time to pull the IV line from the dead man’s arm or intubation tube out of his mouth as they struggled to place the body into a coffin. The inmates had brought in a cheap, light colored wood coffin. One of the jobs for Samantha was to write the name of the dead in large letters using a magic marker on all sides and the top of the coffin.
“There are 22 more coming, Doc!” one of the inmates called out.
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