A Coroner’s Duty

2013
Aggarwal, Sandeep

My pager goes off at night, they always go at night.

I let it wring a few times because we don’t really have many emergencies in this job. As an investigative coroner, the fact we’re being called means the patient has already died. As I rub the sleep from my eyes, I call into dispatch and exchange pleasantries with the dispatcher, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m always impressed by how awake he sounds at two in the morning.

The dispatcher describes the case and gives me the details. Man found deceased in his apartment. Not too surprising, many of our cases happen at night – it seems fitting somehow as if the body knows. I ask the dispatcher the deceased’s age – unknown at this time, but he looks middle-aged according to the police on the scene. I am finding this becoming a common scenario of middle-aged men dying suddenly. In my experience it’s often from tobacco related coronary atherosclerosis, but there was no evidence this man smoked. I ask the dispatcher the usual questions, but not much is known right now. No name, date of birth, or known family. No idea how he died either.

For a coroner, my goal is to answer several questions: Who the person was, when did he die, where he died, what caused his death, and was it natural, homicide, suicide, accidental, or undetermined. So far all I had was an address. Not looking good.

My next call is to the police sergeant on the scene. In my time as coroner, I have developed an admiration of the men and women who serve and protect. They’re organized and are astounding sleuths; I often think they’d make great doctors with those skills. The sergeant gives me a bit more. In their rummaging, they’ve found a passport and the picture inside matches the deceased. While it would seem that answers who the man was, in truth we still knew little about him. I tell the sergeant I am on my way and rush out into the cold, winter night.

I carry my coroner bag which contains the essentials – death certificates, warrants to take possession of the body, warrants to perform an autopsy. It also contains a flashlight and warm clothes – essential for outdoor cases. Finally, I carry lots and lots of rubber gloves and face masks for those times when the body isn’t discovered for some time.

When I reach the scene, I find the customary cavalcade of police cruisers. It's late at night, so there aren't any of the usual neighbours milling around, they’re sound asleep. The building is older and showed it. As a coroner I know this area very well for its large senior population.

I meet the sergeant upstairs and find myself in a spartan, musty apartment. I found the sergeant amongst the rookies, holding the police equivalent of rounds. I was struck by how young the rookies were in their oversized uniforms. The sergeant on the other hand, carried himself with authority and sureness that came with years of experience.

We didn’t exchange introductions; we knew each other well from previous cases, and instead launched into the case. The sergeant reports the man was in his thirties and was recently here from India. He was renting a room from the landlord, who also lived there. He was unemployed and had a family in India he was trying to support. His landlord didn't know much as the deceased mainly kept to himself and he paid the rent on time, which was all he needed to know.

I walk around the apartment, my eyes darting around the room, scanning for anything that might shed more light on the situation. The dust on the floor and furniture was thick, the lighting was pale, and the dining table, couch, and floor were littered with newspapers, letters, and other documents and refuse. The patio door was sealed from the inside. I entered the bedroom of the deceased. It was small and cramped. In the corner was a mattress and on it was the deceased.

The deceased had a small frame, small enough that he looked like he didn’t eat much at all. I could have probably wrapped my hand around his calf. He was wearing a long shirt and underwear and was tangled in his blankets. His face was expressionless and vacant. I donned my gloves set out to examine him further. There appeared to be no wounds or marks. His body was rigid and stiff. The lividity was set, which all suggested he had been dead for a while. I asked the police for help rolling him over and the rookie of the bunch reluctantly stepped forward, donning his own gloves and wearing a hesitant expression. We finish our examination and I checked the man’s clothes, where I found a bottle of ibuprofen.

Looking around the mattress I spot numerous plastic bags, which revealed an assortment of toys ideal for small children. I ask the sergeant about them and he says that according to the landlord, the deceased’s plans to stay in Canada and earn money had fallen through. He was going to go back to India in a few days, but was so ashamed of his failures that he had purchased some inexpensive toys for his children; gifts from a foreign land. The landlord also reported that the man seemed weaker over the last few days, spent more time sleeping, and had developed a cough and fever.

It was clear to me what happened. The man had not been taking care of his health and was new to the country. He likely got sick with a flu or pneumonia and as often the case, decided not to seek medical attention due to the costs. His body, tired and sick, gave out.

After realizing this, I turned away from the officers. I have attended many cases, and liked to think that nothing gets to me, but this time, it took everything I had to hold back the tears welling in my eyes. I thought about this poor man and his children, miles away, not knowing their father was dead.

Pulling myself together I remembered my duty and made arrangements for the man to be taken to the local hospital morgue to await disposition wishes from his family. I wrote his death certificate gave it to the sergeant to pass on to the body removal service. I gestured to the sergeant and asked him if he could do me one favour: gather the toys and have them sent along with the man’s body to the morgue. When the sergeant asked why, I told him that likely the family will request the body be transported back to India and hopefully, the toys this man bought for his children could get to them. The sergeant nodded, he understood.

When I returned home, my wife was up nursing our little one. I kissed them both and recounted the story, but this time I didn’t hold back the tears. She wiped them away and told me that I had performed my duty, not just for this man, but for his family as well.

Theme: Death and Dying | Décès et le mourir
Theme: Family | Famille

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.

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