Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist



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Flies, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, 2017

The beauty of the adult fly belies its immature state. Fully developed blow flies are pollinators, drawn to the aroma of food or flowers. Their larvae are scavengers of necrotic tissue. Those of us who wield the swatter with murderous venom sense the disgusting childhood of these nuisance bugs.

When it’s quiet, you hear them munching and crunching. Hundreds congregate for a feast of decomposing flesh. Still juveniles, maggots eat voraciously during this active phase of their life cycle. 

Fly mothers birth eggs in exposed, moist regions of corpses—eyes, mouths, and wounds––appearing as powdery, white specks. Soon though, they become worm-like creatures squirming through multiple growth spurts, discarding pupa casings with each enlargement. Having stealthily entered through sinuses and airways, they feed and excavate brains, stomachs, lungs.

Nature’s essential tasks are unseen by most people, who genteelly shoo away a bothersome fly at a cookout. The delicate proboscis searches for a drop of sugar in the remnants of a festive meal. Finely lined wings allow quick escape from the human threatening its livelihood. The blue-green body sparkles in the sunlight.


Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

“I can’t get to her,” the investigator said, balancing on the concrete ledge of the bridge. He reached out precariously toward a tree rising up from the ravine. A second officer held onto the man’s ankles. Sweat stained the armpits of their thick police garb.

“Maybe the guys below can push her up,” another said. 

The body of a young female was suspended upside down in the autumn foliage along this hilly ridge. Red toenails peeked out from the yellow, brown bushes. The sour smell and viridescent color indicated she had been deceased for longer than the 24 hours of unseasonably warm weather.

I had dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, and not my usual hospital scrubs or white lab coat. This was an outdoor homicide scene and rural compared to my big city experience, unlike anything I had dealt with in Chicago, but not unusual for Peoria.

Earlier that morning, a jogger noted dots of crimson in the forest where most of the leaves had already fallen. He slowed, thinking he spotted a downy woodpecker and was shocked to realize it was a woman’s pedicure. I had read his statement.

The response team had been trying to recover the decayed body dumped headfirst into the trees from the parapet. I stood on the bridge and scanned the landscape to determine the best approach. The slope was steep yet passable. 

“Whoa,” the officer next to me said after finally grabbing the woman’s leg. His gloved hand came away with the fragile skin which draped over the foot like a partially removed sock.

“Wait,” I said as the physician in charge. “Forensics 101. Disturb as little as possible.”

I descended the gorge to join the downhill team and assess the body from another angle. The head rested 12 inches above us in a tight stand of trunks. Caught in branches, the skull was precariously attached to the neck via strands of sinew, the integument eaten away by maggots. Tugging the body in the direction of the valley might decapitate the woman. We needed to proceed up the slope. The deputies were too big to fit into the narrow space. 

“It’s up to you, Doc,” the lead detective said. “You’re the smallest.”

I squeezed into the brush. Wedging myself beneath the woman, I stabilized the scalp and yelled to the team on the bridge, “Okay, I’ve got her.”

They began to pull. She started to move.

Fly larvae landed in my hair and on uncovered arms, showering earthward as we maneuvered the ascent. I closed my mouth and briefly my eyes, so the grubs couldn’t get in, my hands occupied with holding the woman steady. The cumbersome retrieval prevented wiping the pests away. A fetid aroma surrounded us. 

Step by slow step, we progressed along the uphill grade, trying to preserve evidence, and ultimately reached the roadway. We placed the decedent in a body bag. Maggots continued to wiggle and crawl on my bare skin. 

Finishing the transfer, I ripped off gloves and t-shirt, and tossed them onto the road. My torso jumped, a frenzied dance to dislodge insects. My arms flailed, hands swiping at extremities to make sure the writhing critters were gone, a spastic rendition of an MC Hammer song, the finale flipping my long hair to oust anything that remained. Taking a deep breath, I glanced up. 

A dozen male law enforcement personnel stood in a semi-circle around me, motionless. Some scrutinized their shoes; others viewed the horizon in the distance; a few boldly stared at my pink lace bra. Despite the warm temperature, my chest shivered, and red patches marked unprotected flesh.

A rookie officer whom I hadn’t met before approached, offering a starched shirt on a hanger. He blushed but looked me in the eyes, never wavering with a downward glance at my breasts. 

I unbuttoned the uniform and put it on.

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