Hospital Mortuary

If you have ever wondered who takes care of your loved one when Hospital Mortuary Serves are required, here is a very re-assuring and interesting article about a lady whose commitment to caring and compassion makes her a very special lady indeed. Barbara Peters is a Mortuary Services Manager in London. She is also a fully qualified Anatomical Pathology Technologist which has enabled her to assist many Home Office Pathologists conducting forensic post mortems. Barbara started out working for the NHS in Bristol in 1992 in Clinical Chemistry. From there she moved to Glasgow for where she received her degree in Forensic Investigation and post graduate diploma in Forensic Medical Sciences, as well as fully qualifying in Anatomical Pathology. After her time in Scotland, she was offered a senior’s post at St Georges Hospital in London and from there became the Mortuary Service Manager for UCLH NHS Trust. Barbara has contributed in the past to some media publications’ about her work and recently gained a national award for Mortuary Technician of the year as well as winning awards for her work with bereaved families.

Barbara profile“err on the side of caring too much rather than caring too little.”

“What drew me to the job was when I worked in the laboratory, I worked in a department that screened samples from post mortems. As I read how these people died, I wanted to see what a post mortem was all about. It was arranged with the pathologist for me to observe a post mortem. I can still remember the case now very vividly, as it will always stay with me. It was an elderly lady who died at home from bronchopneumonia. The technicians who were assisting were doing everything from assisting the pathologist with the PM, the reconstruction after the PM and mostly the respect and care they showed in doing this job until she was released to the undertaker.”

I felt that this was the rounded role, helping investigate causes of death, provide excellent aftercare of the person as well as dealing with relatives. A few years later, my own grandmother died suddenly at the same hospital, so I was comfortable with her aftercare from this illusive profession.

When I moved to Scotland years later, I was fortunate to meet the mortuary technician in the hospital I started working at. I told her of my aspiration to work in the mortuary, not because I had a morbid fascination, but wanted to combine a scientific and caring role. From this, she gave me the insight more thoroughly to do the job; one example is death of a child, I hadn’t seen what a dead child looked like and needed to overcome this. From there, I managed to get her job as a trainee, as she wanted to come away from the profession for a break and stayed there for 5 years until I was fully qualified.

In my time in Scotland, I seen a lot of traumatic and accidental death; more so than being back from London. The work does work geographically, i.e. if you live near a busy motorway, farm land, and remote areas you will see a diverse selection of death. In the city area, you get more pathology related deaths, but again it depends on the factors such as high population of elderly, or whether it’s a poorer area. This role enables you to talk to people from all walks of life; I have dealt with the famous, Middle Eastern royalty, to the everyday man, woman and child. I have learnt in the job over the years that everyone is in the same place – they have suffered a loss and they need someone who can be a support to them. This also applies to all dominations of religion. Just because it’s not your faith, you still have to respect the wishes of the family.

As my role involved dealing with working with the police especially after a road traffic accident or a murder, I would help the police in the identification process. I would say this is the worse part of my job where I have to take families in to see their loved ones for the first time after the death. This is not only elderly people, but young people, children and babies. I have had to deal with extremely high emotions but I have to be their crutch whilst their loved one is in my care. I do like to engage with the family and be candid with them in regards what is involved but in a way that it is dignified and respectful. They always appreciate this, even the most difficult of relatives, as not all are upset and grief stricken. Anger plays a part as well, so I have to think very quickly how I engage in such raw emotions. People are very protective of their loved ones, so when a complete stranger is looking after them, you have to reassure that you will take good care of them. This always helps with the grief process for people and you can feel the tension lifted off their shoulders when they leave.

Families come in with the fear of the unknown when it comes to loss. There is so much misinformation from TV and movies and the images the conjure in the mind. One question that I get often is ‘would they have suffered?’ This is more so in a road accident, train suicide or a fire related death. Also people picture in their mind that the injuries are going to be horrific, but I would advise the family of this. If someone was not viewable at all, then I would encourage the viewing in a closed casket at the funeral home, or have the body covered if they were still at the mortuary. This is also done in the same viewing suite, so families/loved ones can be close without the stress of seeing trauma to the body. I have many experiences of dealing with families and the circumstances around the death. One particular type of death is suicide. If a parent is involved in the suicide of their child (adult or not) then this carries such a stigma. The only thing I can do for that family is listen to what their concerns are around the death and why the person done it in the first place.

I offer parents to come in and see their babies especially after post mortem, including holding them and, where appropriate, washing and redressing them. It’s an important part of the healing process and this allows them to spend time with their child before saying goodbye. This dispels any myths of what people perceive and hear about what happens in autopsy work. I’m also clear about explaining what procedure the child has undergone so they know why we have done an autopsy and ensure incision marks are covered with an appropriate dressing. Parents appreciate the candour and the fact that their child is being looked after while in my care.

I like to live my life well in small ways which for me is a great way to detach from my work. As soon as I leave the department, I enjoy the lesser things on a daily basis — such as nice food, a favourite café, lovely flowers, listening to my music, a brisk walk home, reading a book to my granddaughter, dinner with my partner, an hour to yourself with junk TV.  This helps me remain relaxed outside my work life and to become ready for the next day challenges of work. No two days are the same, so I never know what I could be going into. Some people might think that is cold but it is just a natural protective mechanism to help you cope. I’ve carried out hundreds of autopsies since then and work on auto-pilot with my emotions in check. You just switch back on after the procedure is completed and focus on the care of somebody’s loved one.

Sometimes I do not get a lot of time for fun due to the unpredictable nature of the role, however, when I am off, I do like to travel both overseas and the UK. Sometimes I don’t leave the job at home, as soon as someone asks me what I do for a job, most people are intrigued. I do have people that have recently suffered a loss, so ask me questions and just off load their grief. This doesn’t phase me in the slightest, as if someone feels better by just off loading, it makes me feel better and also detaches me away from my own stresses in life. Out of all the jobs I have worked since I left school, this job is my vocation and I was put in the role for a reason. This is not only to help with the bereaved, but to take care of the deceased person for their loved ones. My biggest reward in this work is going a good job looking after the deceased, making sure they are cared for. One example of this is a 13 year old boy who was terminally ill died the day before his birthday. His mother was afraid of him being on his own for his birthday in the mortuary seeing as it was a weekend. His favourite colour was green, so I bought a green glowing balloon and on his actually birthday, took it in and tied it to where he was lying. My colleague was there and we both sang him a happy birthday. I made sure that the mother knew this and the balloon stayed with him until he returned back to the funeral directors. This helped the mother a great deal in her grief process, knowing that her boy was with people who cared, even though he was dead. Some people think it’s not right to do these things for the person and their families. How I look at it’s wiser to err on the side of caring too much rather than caring too little.

When people come to the mortuary for the first time, whether a family, visitor or a member of staff, their first experience are what they are going to expect. They think it’s going to be a cold, dark eerie place where the dead repose. My hope is that people will have a different experience, that they will go away feeling a little more relieved, uplifted and reassured, that they have been treated with the greatest respect, that is my job satisfaction.

Barbara Peters.