An Excerpt from Down Among the Dead MenBy Michelle Williams
October 30, 2010
Never in a million years did I think I would end up in a job like this. Although I had worked in the National Health Service for over a decade, it had been as a health care assistant for people with learning disabilities, a very different life. For the last few months I had been feeling bored and had come to realize that I was never going to make a career out of it. The NHS is a good organization to work for, though; I did not want to leave the pension scheme that I had been paying into for so long and that was mounting up nicely by the year. While I was scanning the intranet pages at work one day, a job caught my eye. It was intriguing and I had to reread it again and again. The vacancy was for a trainee MTO – Medical Technical Officer – at a local Gloucestershire hospital, and I thought that the title alone sounded interesting. It involved working in the hospital mortuary (also known as a morgue). It did not go into too much detail but the word “cadaver” was used a lot. Despite having no experience of working with dead people and no real thought about how I would cope, I decided that I had nothing to lose and would give it a go and apply. I like things that are different, not run of the mill, and this job certainly seemed to fit that bill.
A few weeks passed and I pressed on with my job, putting the MTO (incidentally, MTOs are now called Anatomical Pathology Technicians, or APTs) post to the back of my mind, all the while thinking I’d have no chance because I had no experience whatsoever. I was educated above the standard required, but I’ve always thought that knowledge is nothing over experience. To my surprise, though, I eventually received an invitation to attend one of the mortuaries in Gloucestershire for an informal interview. I figured this would be for a look around while it was quiet to see how I felt in a mortuary environment, but how wrong I was.
On arriving at the pathology department at the hospital, I was asked to take a seat in the reception waiting area as several candidates were attending and we would all be shown around together: this job was obviously more popular than I had thought. On entering the waiting area, I saw a woman dressed from head to toe in black gothic clothing with very long curly straw-like red hair, who was one of the other applicants. She greeted me cautiously; I smiled faintly at her and decided to sit on the other side of the room. She asked me if I was here for the MTO post and I replied, “Yes,” wondering what her next question would be. And then she asked me if I had had any breakfast. I thought this was a very bizarre question to ask someone you did not know, but what the invitation letter had failed to tell me was that I was about to witness a real post-mortem on a dead person, there and then. As the other candidates arrived, it turned out that around half of us had not been told what we were in for. Two people decided to walk out on the spot, and I have to admit I thought twice, but curiosity got the better of me.
Within ten minutes we were in the mortuary and being welcomed, given over-gowns, over-shoes, disposable hats and masks and asked if anyone knew, or was related to, a Mr. Bentley of Pear Tree Close, Gloucestershire. Strange question, I thought, but it turned out that the post-mortem we were about to witness was on Mr. Bentley and it would be neither appropriate nor pleasant to see someone you know being cut from clavicle to pubis for your first experience of dissection. We were handed over to the senior technician, Clive Wilson. All I could see were his eyes under his protective clothing, but they sparkled and looked welcoming. He talked us through the whole postmortem, stopping often to ask how everyone was doing and advising us, “There are no heroes in the mortuary. If anyone feels they cannot cope, then they must leave.” Anyway, to my surprise I found it all absolutely fascinating and spoke to Clive as if we were old friends, and although Clive had clearly been doing it for years, I thought it didn’t actually look that difficult a job.
Meanwhile, I was also aware of what was going on around us. Apart from the other candidates for the job, some of whom had obviously just wanted to see a post-mortem and nothing else, the atmosphere in the post-mortem room was relaxed: two juniors and one senior MTO were busy removing the organs from other bodies (a process which I later learned was called “eviscerating”) and chatting away with the pathologist about daily topics, while weighing body organs and cleaning floors and surfaces around the room, keeping it as clean as possible. I decided then and there that this was definitely the career for me; I wanted to do what they were doing.
A few days later, to my surprise, I was called back for the formal interview and waffled my way through it. I was quite honest when explaining why I wanted the job, as I had no other reason. I replied that I really did not know, but that it just felt right and that the urge to be part of the mortuary team and be able to do such an exclusive, fascinating job was very strong. It paid off, and that afternoon the phone call came through offering me the post; I didn’t really believe it; not until written confirmation arrived a day later.
What I didn’t realize then, was that I was about to start one of the most amazing jobs you can do.