Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist


Facing Demons

Home » Facing Demons

Marc and I sat side by side in the backseat of a taxi. I stared out the window. The FEMA markings still stained the house fronts in New Orleans. It had been almost a decade since Katrina slammed into this Cajun town and nearly 10 years since I had first seen them. 

During the searches, rescue workers spray painted an X on buildings after they completed their tasks indicating the date, team number, hazards and people found. The lowest digits sitting in the legs of the X were most familiar to me in my work. They represented the number of dead. A one over a two meant a single survivor and two deceased. My eyes sought the date. How long had the living person been confined with the corpses? I couldn’t look away. 

We had spent the morning traveling from New York to Louisiana. This was the last leg of the journey: Louis Armstrong Airport to our inn located in the Garden District. I had been looking forward to this trip, an ophthalmology conference for Marc and relaxation for me. I hadn’t expected to confront my memories before I’d even stepped into the city.

“What’s wrong?” Marc said as he saw me crying. His arm was over my upper back, and he squeezed my shoulder. 

He had asked this question often enough in our 30 years of marriage. No answer was required. He knew the demons that haunted me, especially after 9-11. He had helped to exorcise them. 


Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

After working for three weeks at Ground Zero––examining body parts, calming firefighters, breathing in the smoke––I didn’t return to New York City for four years. The thousands who had died were like an army holding the city in siege. Marc, hailing from Brooklyn, had been back. I couldn’t cross the barricade.

Then a cousin was getting married. It was to be a grand Russian affair in the Jewish tradition. Molly, Marc’s cousin, was marrying Baba’s son, Boris. Baba was my second mother; Boris, a half-brother. I did not want to miss this wedding.

Our entire family traveled to Manhattan. Excitement brimmed for the weekend’s events as they settled into the hotel rooms. I felt edgy and fragile, the city, unfamiliar and uncomfortable. 

“Come take a walk with me,” Marc said.

I was reluctant. I could see the sun through the window sheers and the blue sky peeking between skyscrapers. We headed to the street. He pulled out a map he had gotten from the concierge. In the other hand he held a video recorder.

“I’ve got an idea,” Marc said. “I’ll interview you.”

I hadn’t anticipated this. I shook my head and turned around to go back.

“No, don’t,” he said. “I think this will be great for you to talk about your time here.” 

He knew the toll that working at Ground Zero had exacted on me––my sleepless nights, my abandonment of the city, the tears. It had taken two years to rid myself of the desire to cry every time I heard the national anthem, which was often since we had season tickets to Syracuse University basketball games. Bagpipes still brought profound melancholy. 

Marc began to question me like a journalist interested in the details and recorded my answers. I haltingly talked about the rubble, the smoke, the bodies. Marc was struck by one story he remembered and asked me about it.

One day examining a severed arm, I saw that the watch on the deceased was identical to that on the wrist of the forensic anthropologist working with me. My colleague held the severed arm in such a way that the two watch faces were side by side. The crystals were almost touching––one working, one not, like the arms to which they were attached. I stared at the moving hand ticking the seconds as if the timepiece itself had a heartbeat. 

We passed the gaping hole, awaiting construction of the World Trade Center memorial. Chain link fence surrounded the chasm. This space had been a mountain of debris when I last saw it. We stood at the side, transfixed by the enormity of the destruction. 

Heading down Vesey Street, I saw a crack in the sidewalk and halted. I remembered this distinct fissure. It had been steps away from my post at the temporary morgue and I passed it multiple times a day.

I wept. The camcorder whirred on.

In the months and years that followed, Marc and I resumed our trips to the Big Apple. Joshua lived in New York for 5 years. Yet I have never toured the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. I have never watched Marc’s homemade video.


Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

My reaction in New Orleans surprised me. Perhaps because I had gotten past my feelings in NYC enough to visit and have fun, or because I had spent most of my time during Katrina 65 miles away at the morgue in St. Gabriel, or because so much time had passed. 

As we rode in the taxi past the houses marked by FEMA, I envisioned the wet and mud and smelled the muck and decay. Hundreds of dead recovered from this city. Many were elderly and poor. Some wore hospital bands, others janitorial uniforms. They drowned or suffered blunt trauma. They died of heat exposure or lack of water. They had heart attacks or succumbed to diabetes or emphysema. Some had wounds that festered into sepsis. A few were murdered or took their own lives. 

As we passed the convention center, I saw the ghost of a woman down on her knees gesturing for help. The news media captured that despair three days after the hurricane made landfall. Who did she lose? Had they been on my autopsy table?

The devastated Ninth Ward shimmered through the taxi’s passenger window. I saw the mirage of the tops of buildings peeking out of the flood waters with folks huddled on roofs along with handmade messages “PLEASE HELP US. 5 people. 1 cat. 1 dog.” 

Finally arriving at the quaint bed and breakfast, I relaxed into the soft mattress only to be reminded of the military cot beneath me where I had slept for two weeks as I worked for the federal government identifying the dead. 

I closed my eyes and conjured remembrances of happier times. As a young couple, Marc and I had strolled through the French Quarter marveling at the elaborate architecture, all manner of musical instruments accompanying us. We heard trombones, fiddles, and the percussion of 5-gallon buckets. We discovered the cocktail ‘Hurricane’ at O’Brien’s Pub and bought souvenirs of the tall glasses, which sit in our breakfront at home. 

For this trip, I hoped to see the decorations and floats at a museum called Mardi Gras World. I looked forward to tasting the familiar jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, and oysters. I longed for the beauty and peace of St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke it was late afternoon.

“You must have needed that nap,” Marc said. He was sitting in an overstuffed chair reading the daily Times-Picayune.  “Want to go for a beignet and a cup of Cafe du Monde?”

“Think we can get one at this time of day?” I said.

“Sure,” he said and reached out his hand to pull me up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *