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


For the first time, I walked to the front of the classroom. Carefully set up my pocket watch where I could track the time, sipped my tea, and addressed my class. I was teaching anthropology.

In 1963 I had been expelled from high school in New York. I spent more time in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village than in class. Present any of my colleagues from the 1960s with a photo of me in front of a class teaching; they’d have told you it was absurd, laughed, and walked away. But, there I was in a tweed jacket, khaki pants, blue oxford button-down shirt, and regimental striped tie.

A friend had accepted another position, and she recommended me to replace her at the local college as an adjunct professor. The nursing students had a social science prerequisite for their degree, and anthropology was one of the available courses. My friend maintained that I had the edge over other candidates because I had worked in an operating room, and was familiar with the needs of professionals working in a health care setting. It was true. After grad school, I had been unable to find work as an anthropologist. My answer to new found poverty was a retreat to the operating room for almost two years. Scrubbing, as an OR tech was something I had felt was safely behind me. I had never seen it as a gateway to Academia. I was a maritime anthropologist on his way back to coastal Maine.

But soon I was to be standing in front of a class. Then it struck me. I could do anthropological fieldwork. I knew the material and approaches in all four quadrants of my discipline. I did not know how to teach.

My training had included extensive training in ethnography, analysis of data, sociolinguistics, archaeology, physical anthropology, and lots more. Truthfully many of my professors at grad school had no idea how to teach. One professor’s lectures were bound in leather with gold leaf on the binding edges. His delivery was as restricted as his notes. Never varying.

As sometimes happens to me, I found the answer in a dream. I was back at 232 Bay State Road. Boston University’s Department of Anthropology on the first floor. Buried in the back, my advisor’s office was barely more than a large walk-in closet. We frequently would spend an afternoon discussing everything from how to brew a good cup of coffee to anthropology. At the time, I did not understand my good fortune in having access to such a generous person as an advisor. Usually, it was here are the office hours, make an appointment with the departmental secretary. In my dream, we were sitting back having a leisurely smoke of some very illegal Cuban cigars I had procured from a Canadian friend. I asked him bluntly: how do you teach? ” Wes, It’s all presentation, orchestration, and knowledge. The knowledge you have. Just work on the presentation and orchestration. You’ll do fine. I taught you.”

When I woke up, I realized he was right. That weekend I made notes on everything I remembered about his presentation and how he orchestrated his lectures. Then I studied my notes, practiced gestures and mannerisms, and pulled together a suitably Ivy League wardrobe. 

On Monday, I patterned my appearance on his; the walk to the desk, setting up the pocket watch, and the style of greeting the students. After a while, it flowed naturally. 

I’ve taught anthropology, woodcarving, media, and television production to adults, high school students, and even middle school students. I eventually grew into my style. But, it began in that cramped office, where I learned the basics of teaching: presentation, orchestration, and knowledge.

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