Thursday, May 21, 2020

Flashback 1991: Room 174—a dead end

     An upcoming column required a call to the Cook County Medical Examiner Wednesday. I had a lovely chat with someone from the county, and told her, in my chatty, effusive fashion, that nearly 30 years ago I spent the day with Dr. Robert Stein, the county's first medical examiner—before the post had been "coroner," a political office that rewarded connection over skill, and was filled more by men in derby hats than men with medical degrees. I wanted to show her the article—a flaw of mine, I know, showing off my stuff, but too late to fix that now. I remember being proud about two aspects of this story: first, that I remarked upon the beauty of the young bodies in front of me. That didn't seem a place most reporters would go. And second, that I pointed out that most of them were African-American. At the time, it was considered impolite to do that. But to me, it was required. A problem can't be fixed if it can't be mentioned.
     They all end up here. All the clumsy drunks and the cocky felons; the innocent bystanders and the gangbangers who flash the wrong sign. Everyone who dies in the street, dies by the grim forms of violence, dies alone and unknown.
     Whatever the cause, they are brought to the same address: 2121 West Harrison St. They are brought through the same side entrance to the same room: Room 174. They are weighed on the same big stainless steel scale. A mop and an industrial wringer bucket always wait nearby.
     In this year of violence, when Chicago seems sure to top last year's total of 851 killings - the third highest in the city's history - and could very well break the all-time record of 970 murders, it is easy to fixate on numbers.
     But if you spend time in the Cook County Institute of Forensic Medicine and watch the dead come in, one at a time, the numbers recede. They are replaced by a realization of both the skewed racial mathematics of murder and the shocking fragility of the human body.
     Each evening, the next day's list is tallied. It usually contains between a dozen and two dozen names. The list appears on the desk of Dr. Robert J. Stein, Cook County's first and only medical examiner. For 15 years, he has left his home most days before 4 a.m. to arrive at work by 5 a.m. for a 12-hour day.
     He picks the cases he will handle, assigning the rest to the three forensic pathologists who work with him.
     Last year, 8,000 bodies passed through the medical examiner's office, which performed about 4,500 autopsies when cause of death was in doubt.
     On this particular day, there are 16 cases. Six are homicides. On average, eight times as many black people are murdered in Chicago as white; today, five of the six homicide victims are black. The sixth, a stabbing victim, is Hispanic. It is an average day.
     The rest are car accidents, mysterious deaths or possible homicides, requiring autopsies to determine cause of death.
     People mistakenly refer to the entire building as a "morgue," but in truth, the morgue is the big refrigerated storage area at the center of the building. It can be entered through several tall freezer doors.
     Contrary to popular belief, there are no drawers, no slabs. The bodies rest on gunmetal gray shelves. The shelves rise six high to the ceiling, and a forklift is needed to get them down from the top.
     Some bodies are wrapped in plastic shrouds, or white sheets, but the wrapping is haphazard. The only sound is the hum of refrigerator fans.
     The bodies are drenched in liquid soap, in bleach, but still the smell of death seeps through the rubber seals on refrigerator doors and soaks into clothes. Almost unbearable at first, after a minute it disappears, for a while, until it sneaks up again. It is an unforgettable smell.
     One morgue door leads into the autopsy room. The size of an elementary school classroom, the autopsy room has four stations where autopsies are performed simultaneously by Stein, Dr. Robert H. Kirschner, Dr. Mitra Kalelkar and Dr. Edmund R. Donoghue.
     At 8 a.m., there are more than a dozen people in the room. There are the four pathologists, each with an aide who does the bulk of the dirty work; several police officers, and a medical photographer, who takes pictures of the corpses and closeups of their wounds. Visiting interns from the University of Chicago and other schools, as well as doctors from South Africa and Japan, are also in the room.
     At each station is a corpse. The bodies are inclined on stainless steel tables, with fluids draining into large sinks.
     One body is that of a 22-year-old woman, shot by her boyfriend, who then killed himself. He is on a table nearby. On another table is a bicyclist; at the corner of 53rd and Princeton, he was shot seven times.
     The most unsettling thing about the bodies is that in many respects, they are beautiful - resembling sculpture, young and well-muscled, faces handsome and peaceful, beaded with water droplets from the beige hoses aides use to wash the gore into the sink.
     They look like they should be alive, and, of course, they should be. To gaze on those faces, unmarked, and those eyes, open, and then shift attention to the empty, red chest of the corpse is agonizing.
     Stein's case, No. 388, is a 25-year-old Mount Prospect man. He is dressed only in khaki shorts. On one arm is tattooed a dagger; on the other, a devil's face.
     There are no visible wounds. The only sign that he is not alive is his rigid pose; the deep, port-wine stains on his shoulders and the back of his neck, and his lower lip, which is deep blue.
     Mount Prospect Police Officer John Gross says the man was a drug dealer and user, that his roommates said they found him on the floor in his apartment.
     Cutting open a body is quick work. Stein's assistant, Doug Childress, takes a scalpel and, in two easy movements, makes incisions from armpit to armpit and from throat to navel. A few moments more and the man's heart is being weighed and examined.
     "This is the most important blood vessel in the body," says Stein, poking at the aorta. Lungs, liver, spleen follow. They are cut into slices, and samples are sent to a toxicology lab.
     The head is cut open with a small electric saw, its circular blade the size of a half dollar. "Guy's got a thick skull," says Childress. The skull is then opened with a small chrome wedge. The top of the skull makes a terrible sucking sound as it is removed. Stein weighs the brain and sections it.
     After about 45 minutes, Stein has uncovered nothing. All organs seem normal, and they are put into a plastic bag and returned to the chest cavity, which is crudely sewn up with heavy thread. The skull is packed with cotton.
      The next step is to wait for the lab report. Unlike on the television show "Quincy," which the 70-year-old Stein says is wrong on almost every detail, there are no rushes. The lab report will take up to two weeks. Until then, Stein fills out a temporary death certificate.
     The suburban man's body is returned to the morgue, and case No. 391 rolls into the autopsy room. On the new corpse's right big toe is wired a yellow tag that reads: "Unk. male black." He had been shot in the back at West 57th Place the day before.
     Despite the apparent cause of death, Stein still has to examine the body, murmuring details into a micro-recorder.
     The unknown man's clothes are cut away. A pair of black Air Jordans and a black baseball cap are set aside, near a bloody sponge. The corpse is tilted on its side, the body rigid, like a mannequin. The bullet hole is photographed beside a small ruler. The hole is one-third of an inch in diameter.
     The organs are examined. The bullet is found, lodged in a lung, along with a fragment. It looks small for the damage it has done.
     Stein pulls back a lung to display a pool of blood in the chest.
     "See that?" he says. "This man could have been saved if he was gotten to a hospital in time."
     At the next table, Harold Alexander, a technician for 20 years at the medical examiner's office, finishes sewing up one homicide victim. The body is rolled into the morgue and, 60 seconds later, another one is rolled out into the autopsy room.

     "I've been doing this so long," he says. "Every day. You get tired. You take so much–six days on, six days off. Sooner or later it catches up, the stress builds up. I've quit twice and come back twice."
     To summarize the bodies he handles, Alexander says: "Mostly black. Black male. Young male. Gang-related. Drug-related." In fact, 75 percent of the homicide victims in Chicago last year were black—639 black victims arriving at 2121 W. Harrison.
     Downstairs, near Room 174, Joseph Thomas is compiling the list of new arrivals.
     "We're going to hit the 1,000 homicide mark before year's end," says Thomas. "We're getting six or seven homicides a day. That's a lot of cases. It makes you so you don't want to go out for a drink after work."
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 10, 1991


  1. You should be proud. I thank you for, once again, taking me to a place i would have never gone on my own.

  2. My first cousin recently ended up at 2121 W. Harrison, because he wasn't smart enough to give someone a key to his apartment, where he apparently had a heart attack (very predictable in my family) and died. One could say that it didn't matter, but it did matter to him. Dignity was a big thing with him and he often mentioned that he didn't want to die like our Aunt Peg did, alone and rotting. One of my motivations for daily exercising is that I want the people handling my dead body not to say "beautiful" -- never even an aspiration, but "not bad for 77" will do.


  3. Interesting choice of cover photo. Way station between two states, as it were.

  4. As unpleasant as this is to read about, I applaud all medical examiners, pathologists, and aides for doing this vitally important work.

  5. I believe you mentioned your day with Dr. Stein in your Chicago book, Mr. S, and which made me want to read more about your experience...everything you saw and heard and smelled. Thanks for re-running this column. I was still living in Chicago then, but I was no longer a Sun-Times reader, so I missed it. To those who would object to mentioning the race of most of the could you not? Facts is facts. It is what it is. And it matters only to the living, not to those who come through door there. Dead is dead.

    I'm guessing that the image of the empty airport is Midway. Even if that was unintentional, it's still a pretty good pun--2121 W. Harrison: Midway between a life and a grave. The final stopover, on the final journey to whatever lies beyond.

    1. No, it's a United terminal, so most likely O'Hare.

    2. My bad. Haven't flown for a very long time. Don't get arround much anymore.

  6. I recall reading this article almost 30 years ago now. It was forceful then and I feel it again reading it today. Your description of the beautiful bodies is perfect as part of the message. Thank you.


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