By Rick Sorquist
San Antonio had an intense heat that brought out the craziness in many people. This seemed to be especially true on nights accompanied by a full moon, which occurred on Friday the thirteenth, or even Halloween. I was never really superstitious, but after working four years in the trauma center, I did pick up on the eerie coincidence of increased business on those types of days.
At every shift change, all the nurses and technicians would pack into a small break room and receive reports from the nursing supervisor on the previous shift. There were probably thirty of us in a room designed for half that many. Looking back, I guess it was good for esprit de corps. Packing us all in a room shoulder to shoulder was similar to the huddle football players do before each play. We knew that in an emergency room averaging two hundred and fifty patients a day, we had to hit the ground running. Both shifts would sometimes work together during the shift change, but for the most part, we would try and shuffle the other workers out because we knew they were going to be relieving us in the morning.
When our shift began, the responsibilities started immediately. In the trauma bay, we prepared the body of a deceased patient for the trip to the morgue. We cleaned up things on the patient the best we could and ensured tags were properly attached. To keep all the limbs secure, we taped the wrists together, and then the ankles. We then wrapped the patient in a shroud and taped again around the neck and ankles, adding a few strips of tape across the chest to secure the shroud. To prepare the gurney for the trip, we put the railings up on both sides and draped it with two blankets. That disguised the outline of a human wrapped in plastic.
The morgue was on the other end of the hospital, and when we pushed the patient past people in the hall, they were none the wiser as to what we were doing. In the past, one person even stopped and asked me, “Is that all you’re going to do is push an empty hospital bed around all night?” That was our fifth trip that night, and I could only think of how foolish that person would have felt if he knew the true nature of our business.
We called the administrative technician so he could swipe his badge and let us into the morgue. For some reason, our identification badges did not have direct access, even though we were the ones going there most often. I had been to the morgue many times, and it was usually a pretty sobering experience.
Once we were inside the morgue, there was an indescribable odor. It consumed the atmosphere, using every square inch of air space available in that room. People were pulling their scrub shirts up over their faces in an attempt to filter the odor, with no relief. I’d smelled bed-ridden patients with gangrenous limbs literally rotting off their bodies. I’d smelled cancer patients with radiation burns so bad that their skin would smear off like butter during chest compressions. But I had never been that overwhelmed by an odor.
They did autopsies in the back room, and we thought maybe a jar of organs fell from a shelf, but upon inspection, everything seemed to be in order. The only thing left were the refrigeration units. There were ten or twelve of them, and they looked like the kind you see on television, with five or six doors across the bottom and an equal amount directly above, on the top row. I’m not sure why, but when I brought someone to the morgue, I always tried to find a spot on the top row. It just seemed wrong to put the person on the bottom so close to the floor. Even though the temperature was the same throughout the unit, I thought being up higher seemed like a more comfortable position.
We proceeded to accomplish the business at hand. I chose a door on the top and moved the gurney in close. I opened the door and then reached in and grabbed the cold stainless steel tray. The tray had to be pulled out from the unit alongside the gurney. We transferred the still-warm patient to the cold tray so that his feet entered first and his head would be closest to the door. Then it was time to push the tray back in. I always had reservations because it just felt wrong to leave them in a fridge like a side of beef.
While the door was open, the overwhelming odor made people gag, and some just had to leave the room. Through the small refrigerator door, we were able to get a glimpse of what the rest of the unit contained. I was sure there was a decaying body in one of the other trays that had to be the source of the odor. I was shocked to see there were no other bodies in the unit, but there was something in the upper left corner. It appeared to be two or three partially full trash bags.
We decided not to investigate any further. We made our way back to the department, returned the gurney to the trauma bay, and had housekeeping give it a thorough cleaning. It was always refreshing after they cleaned the trauma bays because the smell of the disinfectant seemed to overpower the horrible smells of severe traumas. New linens were put out and the room felt fresh and ready to take on the next patient.
Later in my shift, I asked the charge nurse if she’d heard anything about the morgue. I explained to her how we could not even take a breath without gagging, and that we saw what appeared to be two or three partially filled trash bags. She said that she did have information regarding the contents of the morgue. She shared with me that a helicopter had gone down, and that there were six souls on board. The remains were being examined and investigated. Those six people were now resting at Lackland Air Force Base, in our morgue, on a cold stainless steel tray.
During the rest of my shift, I found my mind drifting. I wondered if those six people had husbands or wives. I wondered if they had children. I wondered how old they were. I wondered how my brother was doing. My brother was a Blackhawk pilot, and now I’d smelled what could happen when one of those choppers went down.
Rick Sorquist is a returning student at Bemidji State University. He is a father to three daughters and one son. His long term goal is to work for the Veterans Administration in hospital administration.