Tending the dead demanding, if not road to riches

Feb. 7, 2011 at 6:05 a.m.
Updated Feb. 6, 2011 at 8:07 p.m.

DETROIT (AP) - Like many working folks, Latishia Garner has personalized her workspace.

There's a Bible scripture, posters, a jar full of gallstones and a sticker that reads: "I love poetry, long walks on the beach and poking dead things with a stick."

Garner doesn't spend her days in a typical cubicle or corner office: Her workplace is the Wayne County morgue.

Garner is an autopsy technician - one of only three in Wayne County. Her job is to prep bodies for examination by forensic pathologists. She does everything from opening bodies up and removing organs to taking fingernail clippings and retrieving bullets to cleaning the autopsy suite and prepping bodies for funeral homes.

Across the region, these technicians or, as they're known in other counties, autopsy attendants or autopsy assistants, do hard work and handle sharp instruments, often for lower pay.

And many have unique backgrounds: Single mothers, college students, a former employee at a deer-processing business, nurse and ex-funeral director.

But they all have something in common: They were drawn to the morgue.

Autopsy assistants are an interesting, if not quirky, bunch.

For example, Megan Nord, an autopsy assistant for the Genesee County Medical Examiner's Office, is afraid of ketchup.

"Deathly afraid," she said.

It's an interesting choice of words from a person whose everyday work would send chills down the spines of your average ketchup eater.

Nord, 27, handles the deceased each workday, and the thing that frightens her most is a basic condiment.

"I don't know," she said, "it just gives me the willies."

Autopsy assistants do hard, at times hazardous, labor for not as much pay as one would think.

According to officials across southeast Michigan, the pay range for the job - which often does not require a college degree - is anywhere from less than $20,000 a year for part-timers to nearly $50,000 a year for full-time techs in supervisory positions, depending on which office one works in.

"It isn't high-paying," said Genesee County Medical Examiner Brian Hunter. But, there's an upside, he said. "This is actually a job you can get with just a high school diploma and you're involved in the forensic area."

But Hunter said his office partnered with Mott Community College to offer a training program for would-be autopsy technicians. The program started in 2009. Only five students were chosen in the initial class to spend time in the Medical Examiner's Office to learn how to be a tech.

But some find that their prior experience helped them transition into the field.

April Leder, who is an autopsy assistant with the Oakland County Medical Examiner's Office, came to the morgue after being a funeral director for two years. Nord said she worked at a deer-processing business, and Shawn Dunn, a part-time autopsy attendant for Oakland County, has experience as a nurse and worked in operating rooms.

But when Dunn took a class that required she see an autopsy, she was fascinated.

"I was actually amazed," Dunn said. "I've always been fond of the human body and the anatomy of the human body."

Many are trained on the job.

That was the case for Garner, who has worked for Wayne County for five years. Garner said about 4,000 bodies are brought to the morgue each year, and a little more than half of those receive full autopsies.

The morgue in Oakland County handles about 1,000 full autopsies a year with one full-time autopsy attendant and seven part-timers. Genesee County handles between 425 and 490 a year with three full-time autopsy assistants, according to officials with each county.

Garner was a clerk with the office and decided she wanted to take on something more challenging. Undertaking her first autopsy, she was nervous and apologized to the deceased.

She's comfortable now, but working the job has taken its toll. Garner has cut herself with her scalpel twice and had to get testing for various diseases and, since she started at the morgue, can't watch scary movies.

"My nerves is just bad," Garner said. "I think it has a lot to do with my job."


Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com



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