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What does one wear to an Autopsy?

By Mary Ann Smyth

The call came on a Tuesday afternoon. There was to be an autopsy the next day at 1:00 and was I still interested in attending? Be at the Veteran's Hospital by 12:30 and I would be escorted to the morgue. Interested? You better believe it. I'd been waiting for this call for well over a year. As I stammered my thanks, errant thoughts ran through my mind. Would I disgrace myself? Would I fall in a faint at the pathologist's feet? Would I throw up in the formalin bucket? Would I ever be able to eat again? And, good grief, what does one wear to such an event?

On reflection, I thought I should forego fashion. Practicality was probably the only way to go. Washable clothes. Or maybe things that had outlived their sell-by date. Was I ready to throw out my Adida walking shoes if they got splattered? Would they wash well enough to erase body fluids? Maybe I wouldn't get close enough to worry about body fluids. Perhaps I would be made to stand in a corner and quietly take notes; told to not get in the way. I could wear everyday slop-around-the-house clothes. Maybe there'd be a gallery that I would sit in to watch. Then I could go for cas-el - what a friend described as casual elegance. Not one of my friends had ever viewed an autopsy to my knowledge. I couldn't call any of them to ask and expect a helpful answer. Or even a coherent answer; one that I could understand over their laughter. This had to be my decision.

Okay, let's work on this a minute. Definitely not the little black dress and pearls with which you can never go wrong. I knew this would be the time that wouldn't work. I automatically negated dress slacks and a silk over blouse. My good jeans and new sweatshirt? Nah. After all, who would see me? Even more to the point, who would care? Certainly not the corpse. The two men who would retrieve the brain for research? They'd be concentrating on their Stryker saw - not on me. The pathologist whose concentration would be on the mass of tissue before her? Would she even acknowledge that I was there? I made my decision. My late husband used to tell me, right or wrong, make a decision and stick with it. I made my decision and stuck with it.

Old faded jeans and a black sweatshirt that had seen better days. And my Adidas, because they would be comfortable for standing for who knew how long. Washable. But they also could be sacrificed if necessary. I did good! When I arrived at the morgue, I was equipped with a large disposable apron and a face mask with plastic covering my eyes and who the heck cared what was under the apron? Not me. It turned out that I was able to stand on one side of the autopsy table while the pathologist stood on the other and explained everything she did. My apron got splashed a little and my shoes not at all.

I got to marvel at the fragility of the pencil thin string that was the appendix. And wonder at the sturdy tube like structure of the pancreas. Creases in the liver were pointed out to me as I was told they probably formed in utero and would never cause any problems. I was awed by the pleats in the stomach lining that allow the stomach to expand. I saw pneumonia in one of the two lobes of the left lung. And observed the minuscule tubes that carry sperm in the testes. What a miracle the human body is.

The answer to my question, what does one wear to an autopsy? Anything you darn well please. Just be sure to wear your glasses and carry a pen and notepad.

Note: The author retains all rights to this article.

Interested in more information on Autopsies and Forensic Science? Try these sites (no dress code):

The Virtual Autopsy
Online teaching resource with autopsy cases (Univ. of Leicester Dept. of Pathology).
Virginia Division of Forensic Science
Forensic laboratory with descriptions of different services (Virginia).

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