Thursday, November 13, 2003
Angela Mainor spends her days in a morgue. The 27-year-old forensic autopsy technician has worked for the Monterey County Coroner''s office for a year. She loves her job. She says it''s a dream come true.
She describes her first autopsy. "I was like, ''wow, this is really cool.'' You get to see the organs. It''s completely different than looking at them in a textbook. But after the procedure I could smell the odor on myself--even after you take a shower it sticks on you."
Mainor''s young and vibrant and pretty. She wears two rings and five studs in each ear, a stud in her tongue, her black braids pulled back in a ponytail, and a diamond engagement ring on her left hand. She''s sunny and energetic--and a far cry from the sullen, spooky, Grim Reaper-esque mental image I have of anyone who would want to work around dead people. And she''s got a stomach--and nose--of steel.
The first time I meet her, we''re in the refrigerator, located in the bowels of the Monterey County Sheriff''s department, where the bodies lie covered in bags, and it smells something fierce. Mainor says the smell never bothered her. She cheerfully shows off a white board where all of the organs'' weights and measurements are recorded during an autopsy, and the facemask she wears while using a bone saw to cut through a skull.
"It can get pretty messy," she says of the blood, bone and tissue.
The next time we talk, I ask her to meet me somewhere warm and soothing. Somewhere that smells like coffee and pastries, rather than decomposing flesh.
Starbucks it is.
We meet on a Tuesday afternoon, which is one of Mainor''s slower days. She says Mondays--especially those after a holiday weekend--are the busiest. "Tuesdays are cleanup, paperwork, tours."
Mainor says this is what she wants to be when she grows up.
When she was younger, she enjoyed reading murder mysteries, and watching true crime shows. Her interest carried over to her college years.
"I took my first human anatomy class at Azusa Pacific," she says, "We were working on the cadaver, and I was like, ''huh, this is not bad.'' I always knew I wanted to do something in the medical field."
Mainor graduated from San Jose State in 2002 with a bachelor''s degree in cognitive psychology and biology, and was subsequently hired by the Monterey County coroner''s office.
"Someone has to do it," she says, "Why not me?"
Mainor''s heard all the bad jokes, and she''s used to people''s reaction when she tells them what she does for a living. She wears scrubs, so after work, if she stops by the grocery store, clerks often ask her if she''s a doctor or a nurse.
She tells them.
"Ohhh," she says, mimicking a clerk''s surprised response, when he''s not really sure how to react.
Mainor says she doesn''t mind. And she''s open to answering questions about her job.
In general, she says, an autopsy takes about one hour. Longer, if it''s a suicide or a homicide because then investigators are present to take pictures, and view samples. "Homicides and suicides have been up this year," Mainor says. She blames it on the economy, and she suspects it will get worse around the holidays.
I ask her if she feels depressed, surrounded by death all day long.
"A lot of people ask me, ''doesn''t it bother you?''" she replies. "If I relied on my feelings, I couldn''t do my job. But I''m helping the dead person by finding out the cause of death, so I can give closure to the family."
But she doesn''t watch "CSI" or "Six Feet Under" anymore.
"The worst part is the cleaning," she says. "At the end of the day, I have to make sure everything is clean, from the instruments, soaking in bleach, to mopping the floors and cleaning the walls. Being back there by yourself, it gets lonely. And messy."
And, like most medical professions, it can be risky, for both Mainor and the medical doctor she assists. Most of the time they don''t know if the person who died had a communicable disease, like AIDS or Hepatitis C. Besides the scrubs, the lab jacket, the boot covers and face masks, Mainor wears two pairs of gloves on her hands, just in case one were to tear. Mainor questions whether she''ll be able to do this job years down the road, when she had a family to think about.
"It''s dangerous," she admits.
Now her break is over, and Mainor needs to return to work. Then she remembers one more part of her daily routine.
"I pray," she says. "Before I start my day off at the morgue, I always say a prayer: Lord, please be with me and protect me and help me do my job."