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  • Writer's pictureAlyse Gray

The Way of the Scalpel

I’m often asked why I pursued a career in death. I didn’t dream of working with dead bodies as a little girl, like so many people do. I sort of fell into it. I met this guy on who happened to be a mortician(I also ended up marrying him). Fresh out of college with a highly unmarketable degree in psychology and no job leads, I went right back to school to get a degree in mortuary science- because I thought my boyfriend had the Coolest. Job. Ever. From there I tumbled down the rabbit hole...of death and began following my career path-the way of the scalpel.

This is the tale of a 19 year old college freshman who was the best of friends with her father, a 54 year old computer programmer who simply adored her. One spring weekend he came to visit her at college to watch her in a track meet for the first time since she had gone away to school.

Upon arriving into town, he went to a high school track to exercise after the long drive up. She came to the track to meet up with him, and waved as she spotted him walking towards her. He didn’t wave back and as he neared, he began clutching his chest, and gasped, "Where is the bathroom?" Thinking he was merely exhausted and badly needing to relieve himself, she pointed him in the direction of the high school, and watched him stumble off. After 45 minutes had gone by and he had not returned, she walked over to the school, only to witness paramedics wheeling her father out of the building on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. Several hours later at the hospital, she learned that he had died on the bathroom floor of that highschool of a heart attack.

She never ran in the track meet. That day, everything changed.

Fast forward 6 years. She is an apprentice mortician at a funeral home and is finally learning the ropes of her first career after earning a bachelor's degree in psychology, then attending mortuary school upon meeting the man of her dreams, who is also a mortician. Today she is picking up a body at a hospital. The decedent is man in his 50's who, like her father, died suddenly of a heart attack. She pulls the mortuary removal van around to the back entrance and the security guard assists her in moving the body from the morgue onto the collapsible funeral home cot. There is a trick to getting a dead body into a van; kicking the front legs of the cot down a little before pushing it into the back of the vehicle makes for less lifting.

Satisfied that the body is securely in the van, she closes the trunk and drives off. A few miles from the hospital, the reality of the situation comes crashing down on her like a ton of bricks and she can only think of her father. Tears start pouring down her face, so many that she is forced to pull over on the side of the road for a few minutes to cry.

Another two years go by, and after obtaining a mortician’s license and leaving the funeral home, she is working as a transplant tissue recovery surgical specialist. The majority of people have no idea what that entails, which is probably a good thing, as it’s not optimal cocktail party conversation. The job description goes something like this: be on call 24 hours a day 6 days a week to remove skin, bones, hearts, veins, corneas, and other assorted body parts from organ and tissue donors. Most of the time in the middle of the night, often times driving multiple hours away to the hospital where the death occurred.

By this point in time, she has seen hundreds of tragic deaths like her that of her father. Few stories bring tears anymore. She knows that each story is sad, but has learned to be professionally detached. Still, some things haunt her, like the little child who was accidentally run over in her own driveway on Christmas Eve(she spent Christmas morning removing her heart and still remembers that family every year on Christmas).

Sometimes a body reminds her of her husband, who she may not have seen for days because she is working so often. On returning home, she makes sure to hug him for extended periods of time.

Skip ahead another three years. She has worked on thousands of bodies and spent a good deal of time at the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, evaluating the medical suitability of potential tissue donors. It was here that she learned about autopsies and fell in love with them, pressed against the back wall of the cramped autopsy room, attempting to stay out of everyone’s way. It isn’t necessarily the blood and guts that captivate her(although those are all part of this strange and interesting world she has found herself in), it is the mysterious wonder of the human body. Finding the physical cause of death, be it a blood clot in a lung or a medical device gone awry, holds an inexplicable allure and excitement. The autopsy also serves the important purpose of helping families find out the truth about why their loved one died.

She has started a graduate program to become a pathologist assistant, an intense two year journey of adventure, learning, and new friendships. She will never forget the things she learned in the medical school’s anatomy lab from a cadaver that her group fondly named "Dolores," or the things her late anatomy instructor taught in that lab as he touched the cadavers with his bare, ungloved hands. She trains with all manner of pathologists’ assistants and pathology residents in various settings. In addition to being taught, she is learning the art of teaching. She would treasure her memories performing autopsies at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, after observing them for so many years. Her friendships would last long after graduation. There is a special camaraderie born from dissecting body parts with others.

In 2011 she is granted a Master’s degree in pathology and now has everything she needs to to go forth into the world of surgical specimen dissection and autopsy prosection and is excited to begin her new career(although she continues working part time in transplant until someone follows her in the middle of the night back to her office, which causes her to resign out of fear). She starts working in a hospital not long after graduation, and can currently be found dissecting specimens in the back left corner of the pathology lab, excitedly showing specimens to colleagues and students.

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