The Thing They Don’t Tell You About a Dead Body

It was surreal, the way the two of us were having a casual conversation while attempting to revive a human being.

Me, a rookie firefighter, working on A-shift for Quint 5, which covers a portion of south Asheville, including the Biltmore Estate, the nation’s largest privately owned home. (Photos by author)

Rookie school seems like a distant memory

By Mike Schoeffel

Note: Names have been changed for anonymity’s sake.

The thing they don’t tell you about a dead body is the way it just lies there. You can give human beings in cardiac arrest chest compressions, you can breathe for them, and you can inject them with fluids, but if none of that works, the body will just lie on the floor like a sack of rice. You’ll have to walk over it as you pick up trash from medical supplies strewn across the room.

The unceremonious finality seems so insensitive to the recently deceased. Yet, there’s simply no way around it. The person is gone. You’ve done everything you could. There’s no need to prolong it; clean up and move on. Ignore the nonperson lying at your feet, which was alive a few minutes ago but is now just a body.

They don’t tell you about all of this because they couldn’t accurately describe it if they wanted to: the ribs breaking under the pressure of your palms, the excess air making a farting noise as it exits the body’s lips, the AutoPulse hammering the human chest like a piston into Jell-O, the sweat, the smells, the dead body just lying on the floor like a sack of rice as you toss needle wrappers into a trash bag. “Thanks for your help,” the paramedic says. “No problem,” you’ll respond. “Thank you.”

This was my first major call as a firefighter. It happened on my first shift, a 24-hour one. I ran three routine medical calls the day before, went to bed, woke up, and prepared to go home at 7 a.m. But, at 7:05 a.m., a cardiac arrest call came in, and my replacement hadn’t shown up yet. So, I hopped on the truck and off we went, toward the residence of the future dead body. The other member on the truck, Ed Morgan, had just arrived and was wearing street clothes. So, he threw on his turnout pants as we sped down the street. I was in blue khakis issued by the Asheville (NC) Fire Department.

The human being we were racing toward was not in good health. He was perhaps in his 50s, overweight, and had been living in hoarder conditions. Fast food wrappers and old food were scattered all over his apartment. He’d called 911 to say he was having heart problems. When we arrived, he was lying on his side in bed, a phone resting on his left ear, barely breathing, maybe three breaths per minute. Unresponsive. His laptop was playing a YouTube video about alien abductions. He was in his underwear, covered in sweat. A picture of a smiling gray-haired woman, perhaps his mom, rested on the nightstand.

They don’t tell you about all of this in rookie school because the ugly specifics defy verbalization. The academy is a kind of playhouse: you get to do all the fun stuff–rescuing people from buildings, putting out pallet fires, etc.–without any of the real-world terror. The stakes are not high. Instructors do their best to recreate what it’s like on the street but can only do so much.

A lot of practical skills are taught in the fire academy (like bailing out of a window, head-first, onto a ladder), but nothing can prepare a rookie for seeing his first dead body.

“Do you have street clothes you can change into at the station?” asked Ed as he squeezed the bag valve mask. I was busy breaking ribs.

“Yeah,” I responded.

“Make sure you decon those pants as soon as we get back. This place is grimy as hell.”

It was surreal, the way the two of us were having a casual conversation while attempting to revive a human being. That’s the kind of stuff they don’t tell you about in rookie school: the casualness of it all, the way that witnessing death becomes, if not normal, more routine. They don’t tell you about how paramedics will crack jokes while a patient is on the verge of death. The gallows humor isn’t meant to be disrespectful but is a means of coping with the horror. It’s a way to make sense of an emotionally draining situation.

We worked the cardiac arrest victim for about 20 minutes before the paramedic finally called it. The AED, the AutoPulse, the bag valve mask–none of it made the situation any better. Why prolong the inevitable? That’s when the cleanup began, with the body just lying there as if it were another inanimate object in the room–which, I suppose, it was. I pulled the King Airway, which features a small blue balloon to open a victim’s airway, from the body’s throat without deflating it. It was covered in spit and white chunks. For a second, I was worried that I might have hurt him. But then I remembered.

As I sit here now, on my back porch in the mountains, images from that morning keep flashing across my mind: Ed and I trying to roll this guy out of the bed and onto a stair chair. The guy having too big of a gut to lock the safety belt, prompting him to fall to the floor with a disturbing thud. Captain Paulson telling me to start CPR. The ribs breaking. The lips farting. The AutoPulse pistoning into Jell-O. The King Airway covered in spit. The animate turning inanimate.

I know I’ll witness much more gruesome scenes. There will be blood, gore, general chaos. The victim will be a child, or worse. The deaths will pile up until they become, if not normal, more routine. I’ll grow hardened but hopefully not too hardened. I’ll deal with these deaths in my own way, as they occur, but this one will forever be the first. There has been a palpable shift; something fundamental has changed within me. Rookie school seems like a distant memory, even though my last day was a week ago.

When we got back to the station, Captain Paulson asked if I was OK. He knew it had been my first serious call, so he gave me his number and told me to text him if I needed to talk. I thanked him, and when I got home, I shot him this text:

“I just wanted to say thanks for reaching out to me this morning. As a guy with no experience, it meant a lot.”

To which he replied:

“It is my pleasure Mike.  We have a unique job. We see a lot of hard things, but we do it together. If you ever need to talk, I am available. You performed beautifully this morning, particularly in a very bad situation. Very proud. You’re welcome on my rig anytime.”

The thing they do tell you about in rookie school is how firefighting is a brotherhood.  I learned that firsthand that morning.

Mike Schoeffel is a firefighter with the Asheville (NC) Fire Department. Before starting his firefighting career last year, he spent a decade in journalism. He has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and his work has been featured in USA Today, Mountain Xpress, and The Charleston City Paper.

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