TW: Suicide, death
As I look at the light pink mush on the table, I can’t help but think this would be a zombie’s ideal profession—the mush being brains, of course, that my attending was digging around in searching for a bullet. I give voice to my thoughts, and he agrees, adding that he would be the first to go into the apocalypse as the morgue would no doubt be at the top of the zombie’s checklist. The 72-year-old owner of said brains is lying on the table next to us. To be fair, he turned his brain into pink soup first when he placed a gun to his temple.
After the trash bag filled with the man’s organs is placed back in his abdomen, ready to be sewn back together, we move on to the next case: a freshly minted 21-year-old who got into a single-car accident in the early hours of the morning. “He was young,” my attending notes as he looks at the paperwork next to the body and reads the scene report. Just three months after his birthday, he was lying on the slab, his ulna visible from the full thickness burns that occurred after his car exploded. His brain, however, was perfectly uninjured- a prime learning specimen, yet still not fully developed. EMS said that he smelled strongly of mint and that they found alcohol in his car, mint schnapps. Perhaps it would not have been there if his neurons in his prefrontal cortex had 4 more years to finetune.
Later in the afternoon, we take the brain of a 32-day-old infant that has been fixed in formalin and slice into it like bread. Brains are notoriously soft, so they can be fixed in formalin to prevent them from deteriorating and make them easier to handle. Despite this treatment, it is still so soft that small pieces of it flake off as the knife severs neurons. I learn that a baby’s brain is so delicate because it lacks white matter formed by myelination. It forms as they grow to allow the brain to process information at faster speeds and helps development and learning. “How did the baby die?” I ask, and the chief medical examiner tells me that the parents were co-sleeping with their infant when they woke to find her covered by a pillow. After looking at the brain, I see the doll reenactments that depict the last moments of the child’s life. In pediatric clinics, I counseled parents on the harms of co-sleeping. Here the outcome was laid out in front of me. Soft but neat slices that will forever lack myelination.
As I drive home for the day, taking extra care after seeing the consequences of car accidents, I can’t help but think of the saying that death is the great equalizer. In some ways, it is true—everyone will receive one final doctor’s appointment even if you haven’t seen a doctor since birth. For many, the morgue will provide this pit stop; for others, it will be their hospital or hospice physicians—either way, every single person, no matter age, race, or wealth, attends this appointment. Yet, when these brains are on a cutting board in front of you, the skull, an open casket off to the side, it’s hard to say that death is equal. It just doesn’t feel fair that an innocent infant hardly a month old meets the same fate as others here of their own volition—be it that they wanted to die or decided to drive instead of calling an uber. Even when looking at the dead, we cannot leave our biases with our clothes after we dawn morgue scrubs. It’s easy to forget that depression and addiction are illnesses and to not jump to conclusions when toxicology has yet to return. Perhaps it is only through the zombie apocalypse that we can become unbiased and view these brains as equal—as food.