From the mortuary to the laboratory
Before they were teachers, two Glen Rock High School faculty members walked amongst the dead.
April 2, 2014
A twenty-two year old girl is working in a vile room. It is cold and steel, and the young girl is surrounded by inanimate bodies. She is surrounded by the dead.
Each body, raised slightly on angled rollers, looks as if it’s reclining on a lounge chair. Underneath, water constantly flushes to rinse out the bodily fluids.
The cadaver, split open, dehisced, an autopsy to be performed. The flushing water gurgles: blood pours out of the body, washes into a drain; long gashes are made to retrieve organs.
Heather, a college-student working in the local morgue, begins to manipulate the corpse to harvest the organs she needs for her examination. As she touches the body to shift it along the rollers, it emits a low, somber groan.
Is the body reanimating?
Heather, also known as Heather McDermott here at Glen Rock High School, recently spoke to The Glen Echo regarding her macabre experiences at the morgue in the NYU Medical Center.
“To get to some of the organs, you need to manipulate the body. So, at one point, we’re moving the body to harvest what we needed. And when you move the body there’s air left in the lungs,” McDermott said. “So, when you move the body, it compresses the lungs and a moan came out.”
McDermott worked at the morgue for only a couple weeks. But even though she was there for only a short period of time, she gained experiences that would last her a lifetime.
Yet even today not even her family members can come to terms with the job, which they considered frightening.
“They thought I was crazy,” she said. “They absolutely thought I was crazy… you know, why would you want to do that? My brother, though, is also into the same field and he came with me. I asked if he could come observe, and they said yes so he came and observed.”
In college, Heather McDermott majored in biology and minored in education.
“I had phenomenal professors in college who turned me onto finding a passion and sharing it with other people. It’s what the teacher’s passion was and because he was so passionate about his material, it transferred, and it made everyone else passionate and excited,” McDermott said. “I never thought the topics would be as exciting as they were, but they were really exciting.”
She now tries to instill her students with the same type of passion – not only learning something but living it and experiencing it.
“It’s something everybody should experience as part of either a high school or college requirement because it definitely gives you insight,” McDermott said. “We’re very lucky our bodies work the way they work because they’re very fragile, so you need to take care of your body and not do stupid things… Treat it right because it’s your temple and you only have one – and that is crystal clear when you work in the morgue.”
“You’re seeing the people that have died by [getting hit by] a bus, the family is upstairs mourning the loss, the mom is downstairs at the table and we’re doing the autopsy,” said McDermott. “You see how real it is and how fast it can happen. You just take more care of your life and your temple.”
Heather McDermott did not grow up wishing to frequent morgues. She had simply applied to be an employee at the morgue, a job guaranteed to help a college student with her bills and give valuable work experience.
Unfortunately, working in the morgue as an autopsy assistant was not a financially sustainable job. Still, the unforgettable experience was enough to compensate.
Her word of college advice?
“[Getting the job] was basically just word of mouth through the professor, you know… you work real hard, you’re talking to her all the time and she knows you’re interested and it’s a good way to get experience,” McDermott said. “Get to know your professors.”
“I said, ‘Absolutely, I’m studying the human body I want to see how it works,’” she recalled. “Let me see the real thing.”
The chill that remains
It sounded almost like a word problem, not a real world situation.
A man is sitting in the center of a railroad track.
A moving train hits the man at full speed. What happens to the body after he is pronounced dead?
Such questions were entertained by another Glen Rock High School science teacher, one of two who were previously employed in morgues.
A young, college-aged student, Irene, is in the room when the grotesquely mutilated body arrives. She was a pre-med major with studies in anatomy and physiology and was an environmental studies minor.
“What happens after a while is the muscles start going into rigor – that means they go back to the position they were in when the person died,” said Irene Bickert-Fink, Glen Rock High School Chemistry and Environmental Science teacher. “They had the sheets on him and they were about to do the autopsy… and the body sat straight up.”
All of her hairs stood on end, staring at this body now sitting straight up.
Right out of college, Bickert worked at the Bergen County Medical Examiners Office in Paramus. As she worked at the morgue for all of Bergen County, Bickert observed many different deaths.
“We got people that died jumping off of the George Washington Bridge, as long as it was on our side of the Hudson,” said Bickert. “There was one guy that was mummified because he tried to jump off the GWB but got caught in the rafters and they didn’t find him for years, it must’ve been ten years, it was creepy because there was nothing left… it was just like a mummy.”
But with such morbid dealings every day, there was some need for levity amongst her coworkers.
“The people that work there are really funny,” she said. “But they’re really almost insane, maybe not insane, but they have to have a really sick sense of humor to be able to do that day in and day out.”
In the morgue, Irene Bickert wrote autopsies and weighed organs.
“They needed people that knew medical terminology to be able to write the autopsies from the dictations from the doctors,” she said.
Bickert’s grandfather was a judge and was able to get her a job working at the morgue through a friend.
“I really just went in for an interview. They said, ‘Oh, have her come down.’ It was really through my grandfather. I really didn’t do much about it,” Bickert said.
Then came the end of Ms. Bickert’s time at the morgue. Having worked there for almost a year, Bickert decided that the job was a bit too depressing for her to deal with.
“It was really sad when you got teenage suicides… baby drownings,” she trailed off.
“I couldn’t take it after the baby drownings. I worked at the morgue for almost a year, but I think it was right when it got to be the summer, that’s when there were the baby drownings. It was horrible and you wouldn’t believe how many there were. There were about ten to twelve a year,” Bickert said.
She resigned soon after. The thought still gives her chills.
Right after working at the morgue, Bickert attended graduate school.
But despite Bickert’s desire to put these memories behind, her family was strangely interested.
“[My family and friends] thought it was really gross,” she said. “They all wanted to hear about the nasty… but, if it was a criminal case, I wasn’t allowed to talk about [it].”
Jim Fink, Bickert’s spouse, admits that he was a tad surprised when he found out that his wife used to work at a morgue.
“Well, you understand that that took place before I met my wife. And I guess when I found out that that was one of her experiences I thought, ‘Wow that’s interesting,’ he said, discussing his wife’s previous work. “You know, we are all a sum of our genetic inheritance and our experiences and so that’s one of many that’s gone into who my wife is, and of course I find her an endlessly interesting and fascinating creature.”
After working at the morgue, Bickert took up teaching.
“I decided I didn’t want to go to medical school, and I was already a ski instructor and a tennis instructor, so my grandmother said to me, ‘Why don’t you become a teacher?’ Then I went to graduate school, and I did teaching and also environmental chemistry,” said Bickert.
Nevertheless, there are certain things about the morgue that are difficult to bury.
“You can’t get the smell out of your nose,” she said, with a memorable grimace.