The First Case: First Dissection
The first time I stood in the autopsy room and faced a fresh corpse, I had just turned 18.
The head surgeon's face was serious as he meticulously opened up the corpse. I stared blankly at this scene, heart unconsciously pounding faster and faster.
The pounding of my heart brought me back to those days when I was still a curious and eager young boy.
"Don't take for face value your dad's proud appearance; it took a lot of hard work to get to there."
When I was a child, that moment when my dad stepped out of the door was the most anticipated part of my day. Watching him carrying that polished gun, wearing that uniform with every button fastened, there was an air of excitement. My dad, with a "bada" sound, would kiss my cheek. As one of the first in the field of Criminal Justice and a criminalist, he of course hopes that his little boy will succeed him. But my mom does not agree.
As a family that had worked as policemen for generations, my mom wasn't willing to let even her son sell his life. In her opinion, a safe and relatively peaceful career as a doctor is the best choice. She herself is the head nurse in a hospital, taking care of both big and small things. Besides, doctors save people. Where does it not compare to police?
So which one: doctor or police? The opinions of these two people were never the same. The young me who didn't want to offend either of them could only swing helplessly from one side to another. For a while, I was going to be a policeman. Then for the next while, being a doctor didn't seem too bad either. So in this manner, I swayed back and forth between police and doctor, police and doctor, through my three years of high school. Only at the moment I was filling in my career survey did I discover a new one: forensic sciences.
Isn't this having the best of both worlds?
Even though my mom was rather reluctant, with my dad's support, I finally filled out my first choice.
Remember, this was back in 1998. Forensic science was a cold field: colder than cold. There were only a grand total of 300 graduates per year. With my score that was 30 points higher than the general undergraduate score (actually, it wasn't high enough to get to top colleges), I got into the Department of Forensic Sciences at Wannan University. Of my 40 classmates, only I voluntarily chose this field. All the others were forced into it from various circumstances. And so, some anticipating and some dreading, we 40 forensic science students began this strange new life.
Those in the medical field all know: from the very start of the year, the course isn't easy-going. Especially the corpse dissection class, that class was a nightmare, its dropout rates incomparable.
I was lucky. When summer vacation arrived, my dad enthusiastically helped me search for an internship, allowing me to go to the police Forensics Department to get an early taste of what the job is like. Once I realized that those thrilling scenes on TV I had watched were about to become a reality, I excitedly counted down the days left, praying that the day would arrive sooner.
Everything was normal a few days before I arrived at the Forensics Department. That's no wonder, in rural cities like my old home, homicides or murders are very rare. Sheng Bing, who is just a few years older than me, was already the head of the Forensics Department. His success eventually landed him as my intern teacher. Even though he stopped working as a medical examiner in the future, he will always hold a high position in my heart.
At that time, I followed him around all day like a small, devout follower. Sticking onto him like glue; going wherever he goes. The most he would do per day usually was identify injuries causing death. Even though I took these lessons seriously, alas, my knowledge was too limited. My mind was just like a puddle of water. The days passed by neither fast nor slow until one day, the telephone in the Forensics Department suddenly rang.
"Forensics Department," I said into the phone.
"I am from the Criminal Justice Department, Xiao Li. A gang fight has broken out on Shicheng Road and one man has died. Please come to the crime scene." The voice on the other end was full of fatigue.
"Dead?" I was stunned for a moment, unable to process the news.
Brother Sheng Bing grabbed the phone from me, "What is the situation? Are there any leads?"
(TL: I'm not a medical examiner nor am I part of the police. I tried doing some research but this is the best I can come up with. If you know a better term, contact me! 头绪)
I would only learn later that the so-called "leads" revealed whether the suspect is known or not. If the culprit is known, then there will not be a lot of pressure on the medical examiners and they will only have to do a few basic checks. If the culprit is not known, then there will be many things medical examiners need to analyze. The scene inspection and autopsy will also take twice as long.
"Just a bit of a scuffle. We've caught a few and are chasing the rest, they won't escape."
"Okay, we will be there soon." Sheng Bing sucked in a deep breath.
We quickly got on a police car labeled "Crime Scene Investigation," the alarm blaring the whole way. An inexplicable feeling of excitement rose within me.
But the crime scene was quiet, much quieter than I had expected.
Multiple yellow warning tapes were strung alongside the road, a crowd of curious spectators gathering at its sides. From afar, there didn't seem to be anything worth seeing so I wondered what all these people looking at. Only when I got closer did I see a pool of blood on the floor, some in bloody drops and others splattered. Sheng Bing took out a toolkit and retrieved a sample from both blood shapes to test for DNA, which was very advanced at the time. It was also done using electrophoresis, making the process very complicated. Thus, this high-tech method is usually not used— especially when the suspect has already been identified.
We quickly finished investigating the crime scene and got back into the car.
"Brother Sheng Bing, where are we going?"
"Of course, to the funeral home. The victim died en route to the hospital and has now been transferred to the funeral home."
"F-funeral home?" Although I had already mentally prepared myself since I will be performing autopsies sooner or later, in the end, I was still a little nervous. No, it was also laced with traces of excitement. "Didn't they say that the case was already solved? Weren't all the people involved arrested? Yet we still need to do an autopsy?"
"How could it be useless?" Sheng Bing looked at me and laughed, "As long as it's a murder case, an autopsy is required. This is for the basics! It is an important step to ensure accuracy and acquire evidence."
"Even so, isn't this just unneeded labor?"
Brother Sheng Bing gave me a smile and didn't press the issue with me: "Go watch and learn. Next time, it will be your turn. Even though the Investigation Department said that it has already been solved, that may not be the case. Don't believe it? Just wait and see."
Hearing him say that it would be my turn next made me both excited and nervous. Would I be able to pull off an autopsy if I've never held a scalpel before? No matter what, I must understand what I see this time!
Funeral homes are, in general, far away from the area. Using my time in the car wisely, I picked up the case investigation and flipped through it.
In this gang fight, 18-year-old participant Rao Bo was stabbed by a knife and instantly fell to the floor, dying while on the way to the hospital.
"How coincidental, this guy actually has the same name as one of my elementary school classmates, hehe." Even though I said it casually, I secretely had an ominous premonition. After all, it was the same surname, first name, and age…
Soon, the police car drove under an archway with the words "Tomb Garden." Even though it was a hot, sweltering summer, as soon as I stepped into the autopsy room, my back was hit by a burst of cool air.
Actually, at the time, there were still no standardized autopsy rooms. At most, there would be a small room with a small dissection table in the middle of it and a small ventilator attached to the window. This was already considered above-average quality. At least, in the winter, you won't have to deal with the cold wind while dissecting in the room. But in the summer, the corpse will rot easily and the foul odor can't be dissipated, making the room like a poison gas chamber. Therefore, autopsy rooms were changed according to season.
A white body bag was placed on the table, doomed to never see the sun again, creating an exceptionally eerie feeling.
"Bring it outside, the air in here is not good," Sheng Bing said and an assistant dragged a moving bed over. The two medical examiners put on their gloves and easily lifted the body, placing it on the moving bed. I couldn't help but feel emotional at this scene: once a person stopped breathing, he/she really seems to become an object.
They pushed the body into the corridor behind the cremation room. I thought, this must be their "open-air" dissection room. In reality, open-air autopsy rooms are very unscientific, but conditions were limited. Even today, almost ten years later, many places can still only afford open-air rooms.
I woodenly followed behind them, my heart beginning to panic. Is this really the Rao Bo I know of or not?
Once the corpse was in place, Brother Sheng Bing's work was about to begin. His expression was stern, actions meticulous, slowly pulling the body bag open. My heart began beating faster and faster. For 18 years, I had wanted to be like my dad, valiantly rushing into the scene and meting out justice. But my first lesson came fiercely and cruelly…
The body bag slowly opened to reveal a white and stiff, yet familiar, face.
A bolt from the blue! Instantly, the smell of blood and grief rushed forward like a tsunami. Memories of my youth flooded forward, drowning my throat and eyes.
How could I not recognize him? Even if we had not met for seven or eight years, the lines outlining his face wouldn't lie. Yes, this is the Rao Bo I know…
My first dissection will be on my elementary school classmate… I must be delusional! How could God play such a cruel trick on me?
Sheng Bing probably saw my strange look, "What's wrong? Can't stand it? If you can't stand a dead body, then you can't become a medical examiner!"
I had not yet calmed my emotions, "No, it's not… Rao Bo… he's my classmate."
"Ah, truly?" Brother Sheng Bing was also surprised, "Then do you want to go back first?"
I contemplated for 10 seconds before reaching a final decision: "I won't leave. I'll stay." If I can't even pass this trial, how will I ever become a medical examiner?
Brother Sheng Bing looked at me sympathetically, "Alright, staying is good, don't take it too seriously and just return to the car if you can't stand it, it's okay."
"I can stand it." My whole body was numbed, courage from who knows where keeping me planted there, motionlessly staring at the dissection table.
The body bag was finally completely removed. My former tablemate and playmate lay in front of me: one arm raised due to post rigor-mortis, eyes slightly opened as if it was still staring at something. It was not anything like "falling asleep" as mentioned in books. His white t-shirt was dyed red with blood, even his pants were stained. After removing his clothes, blood could still be seen gushing out from the wound. Sheng Bing and his assistant, Ze Sheng, carefully inspected the deceased's clothing. They studied and discussed something while little ol' me nervously sat on the side, jotting down some notes. As for what they were saying, I couldn't hear it at all. I merely stared at the body, my mind completely blank.
Shortly, Rao Bo's clothes were stripped off revealing a tattoo I had never seen before, although that tattoo had mostly been obscured by his blood. I squeezed my eyes shut, unable to bear it, but still faintly saw the fat and muscles from his chest and abdomen. It seemed like the wound was quite deep.
The head surgeon was Sheng Bing, he stood on the right side of the body holding a ruler and carefully measured the wound. I clearly heard the numbers Sheng Bing reported: 7 knife wounds, 3 of which were in the chest, 4 in the abdomen. The object used was rather blunt but still a sharp weapon, all of the wounds caused by the same object. Every cut was around 3-4 cm deep, the cause of the injuries clear: he was stabbed by a single-edged blade around 4 cm long.
"Brother Sheng Bing, do we really need to do this autopsy? The cause of death should be very clear." I saw Sheng Bing prepare to dissect the body and couldn't help but feel uncomfortable.
"Of course we need to or else how will we know which organs he was injured in, which knife wound was fatal?
"This... is there any point?"
"Hehe, whether or not there is a point, you will find out soon."
The scalpel was put in action. Sheng Bing meticulously cut the body open from the neck to the pubic symphysis. The subcutaneous tissue appeared: the yellow and red forming an eye-catching image.
"Cutting open the chest and abdomen at once is the norm of our country's medical examiners. The neck will be inspected later, after the chest area. This is akin to bloodletting: it prevents blood from mixing with the muscle tissues when they are cut later. If blood gets into the other tissues, it will be impossible to tell whether the muscle is bleeding or blood infiltrated the muscle. It will also be impossible to tell whether the neck had been subjected to external violence or not. The neck is a key region and there must not be any mistakes," Brother Sheng Bing explained to me while he simultaneously separated the muscle tissue in the chest area. "The separated muscles should be attached to the ribs, and you should not use the small surgeon knife, we don't have that much time. A knife is a knife, the scope should be big, every cut accurate, the knife held parallel. Do not accidentally scratch the bones, even more so the chest."
Watching Rao Bo's chest being slowly opened up, my nerves tightened to its limits and I could only resist the urge to throw up.
Soon, the stomach was opened up and the intestines that were now exposed to the air rushed out. Brother Sheng Bing carefully inspected the deceased's abdominal cavity and shook his head. "Not one of the four knife wounds hurt the vital organs or blood vessels, even the intestines are unharmed! The deceased should have been saved!"
Quickly, he skillfully used the scalpel to cut along the costal cartilage.
When Rao Bo's chest was cut open, I really couldn't take it anymore and could only leave the dissection table, standing far away. I could only hear Brother Sheng Bing say, "How unfortunate, only a single knife pierced through the rib cage, hitting the aortic arch. The other two stabs were stopped by the rib cage and did not go through. This kid has terrible luck. If the knife was just a bit more angled, it would've been, at most, a blood pneumothorax." I turned around and saw that Rao Bo's black lungs had already been taken out of his body. I suddenly had another urge to vomit.
"Brother Sheng Bing, he— was he a heavy smoker?"
"Are you talking about the black stains on his lungs? Oh, no. Remember, this is a corpse. After dying, blood will travel downwards due to gravity so the tissue will be darker.
"Have you determined the cause of death?"
"Yes, he has a total of 7 knife wounds but only one was fatal. It's this one on his chest." Brother Sheng Bing lifted up the corpse's pectoralis major muscle on the left side and pointed to the wound. "This wound punctured the aorta and caused severe blood loss leading to his death." While saying that, he began spooning out spoonfuls of blood and poured it into a container.
"The internal blood loss is 1500 mL," Sheng Bing said, "and adding in the external blood loss will be enough for a person to die. Coupled with the corpse spots, the cause of death is very clear.
Immediately afterwards, Brother Sheng Bing dissected Rao Bo's neck and head. No obvious abnormalities were found. At that point in time, the electric cranio saw was rarely used. Forensic pathologists and medical examiners used to use a small hacksaw to saw through the skull. Even now, I still fear the smell of bones being sawed.
Right when the corpse was sewed back together, completing our work, Inspector Xiao Li ran over.
"How is it? Is there any progress?" Brother Sheng Bing cared about how the investigation was progressing.
"Don't mention it," Xiao Li wiped his sweat, "We've caught three people and have sufficient evidence against them. But all three of their knives are pretty much the same and they all refuse to admit they stabbed his chest. They all say that they stabbed him in the stomach."
Modern hoodlums all seemed to know that piercing the stomach had less chance of killing a person than piercing the chest.
Xiao Li raised his hands, implying that his hands were tied.
"Did you bring the knives?" Sheng Bing scrutinized the wounds on the body for some time. Suddenly, his eyes lit up: "Do you know which one of them owns each knife?"
"No problem there. We have all the information."
Brother Sheng Bing looked closely at the wounds and picked up three transparent blade sheaths and put them over the three knives. He studied the three edges carefully, lightly smiled, and picked up the knife with the red handle. "This is the fatal knife."
I was amazed, "Why? You can even tell this from the wounds? The three knives look exactly the same!"
"The shape is similar but… Everyone, take a look at the seven stab wounds on the body. The wounds are mostly uniform and seem to have roughly the same shape. However, take a closer look at the wound wall. There is a slight flap on the wall, can you see it?"
Everyone nodded their heads.
"Why are there no flaps on the other wounds and only on this one? The wall is formed along the side of the knife which is, usually, smooth. It should not create a flap. Thus, the flap cannot be formed by the side of the blade or the tip, it can only be by bumps on the blade, such as a curled edge."
"Oh! You're right!" Everyone fought to see the knives. Sure enough, only the knife with a red handle had a curled edge.
"If the knife's material isn't very good, then after piercing the ribs and pulling it out, it's easy to form flaps on the wound wall. Therefore, I suspect that two of these chest wounds were caused by this red knife. Perhaps, the knife was originally curled and the perpetrator used it to stab the victim twice. Or the knife was not originally curled and only became like that after the perpetrator stabbed the victim. However, I am certain that the fatal wound was caused by this knife."
"With your incredible analysis and deduction, we are assured." Xiao Li happily ran off.
I was standing shocked off to the side. Brother Sheng Bing looked at me and said, "How about it? Didn't you say earlier that since they've already identified the suspects, there isn't a need for an autopsy? Do you see now? Isn't the job of medical examiners important?"
I recovered my senses and reverently looked at Brother Sheng Bing, "I sure didn't think that there would be such problems from a seemingly solved case that need us to solve them. I totally underestimated the job of medical examiners!"
Medical Examiner Ze Sheng also said, "Yes, with these kinds of analysis and evidence, many obscured things related to death are cleared up! This key evidence can only be acquired by us and remember: the corpse never lies!"
On the way home, even though I hadn't walked away from the sadness of my old classmate dying, within the grief was also another indescribable feeling. This was the first time I truly experienced the importance of medical examiners. They not only provide clues for the investigation, but also provide evidence! If it were not for the results of the autopsy, then the true culprit wouldn't have been fished out and the other two may even have been implicated...
To me, today was an enlightening day. I finally made up my mind and decided to become a good medical examiner.
Medical Examiner Dr. Qin is finally out! For my mom, who has an uncanny interest in novels regarding corpse dissectors.