The Gurney

Warning: don’t read this if death, dying, or traumatic death are Triggering factors for you. This was the most disturbing story I ever wrote.

This story was written in response to a Word of the Day Challenge -Cadaver

When I first was out of the Navy, I was like many of the newly discharged. I lacked a direction in life. But while searching for a focus in my new life, I had to pay rent and eat. So I found a job as an orderly in one of the many specialty hospitals in Boston.

I was assigned to one of the Ear, Nose, and Throat units. My first six weeks there were miserable because there was a “normal flora” on the unit. Normal flora was a polite way of saying that the human nose and throat are dirty zones. All personnel permanently assigned to that unit spent several weeks suffering from minor infections common on the floor. After a while, you developed a sturdy immune system or transferred to something less immune stressing, like an orthopedics unit. I stuck it out because I was interested in surgery, and on this unit, I saw a fantastic variety of innovative and life-saving approaches to surgery.

I also saw a fair bit of death from cancer. In the sixties, Chemotherapy was just an infant, and surgery was not sufficient to save many. Some patients had very extended stays. Multiple surgeries and other treatments kept them close for long periods. You grew attached. You cared for them day after day, for weeks, or through repeated admissions. They became friends, and you came to know their families.

On my shift, when one of my friends died, it was frequently my job to prepare them for the morgue – this was termed “PM Care” for post mortem care. Following this, I had the duty of taking them on a gurney to the morgue. They had made a transition from breathing patient and friend to a cadaver

So perhaps I am premature in allowing you to presume that a fresh corpse is still. It’s not. Gas gets expelled from either the mouth of the anus; the body sometimes shudders. You worry that the pronouncement of death was premature.

As you progress down the corridor, the doors to the rooms are being closed. There’s no need to worry the still living, but ill with the fate of Mr. Smith. If available, you take a freight elevator to the basement where the morgue is located. You open the door. And leave the gurney and the body for the morgue tech and the M.E. 

I did this for about half a year. As soon as an opening came up in an operating room, I moved to the sanitary comfort of aseptic technique, surgical scrubs, gowns, and carefully prepared instruments. Patients came in, the anesthesiologists put them under, and the surgical team did everything in their power to set right their ills.

 I never forgot the long lonely walks behind the gurney. I think it was why I went into surgery for those years before I went to college. I could feel like I was an active rather than a passive contributor to saving lives. 

“We are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from life.” William Osler