Stafford Hospital mortician: 'It’s not like the TV dramas'
Thanks to programmes such as Silent Witness and CSI, Britain is fascinated by the previously unknown world of pathology. Danielle Bourne talks to Lisa Jones, a mortician at Stafford Hospital, to discover the reality behind the fiction
The popularity of long-running British crime dramas, such as Silent Witness and Waking the Dead – not to mention American counterpart CSI – has piqued our interest in pathology.
Even the squeamish viewer has become anaesthetised to the sight of a body laid out on the post mortem table, and the clinical process which the pathology team goes through to discover the cause of death.
But is this an accurate portrayal of pathology?
"Definitely not," says mortician Lisa Jones. "People think that working in an autopsy room is all high tech and glamorous, like they see on television.
"In reality, specialist tests do not take minutes to reveal the identity of a murderer, nor does a retinal scan of a detached eyeball reveal what the victim had for breakfast!"
Lisa, who lives in Stafford with her border collie Indy, has worked for Stafford Hospital as a mortician for the past nine years and as a biomedical scientist for 14 years.
Although pathology tends to be a male-dominated profession, Lisa is one of three women who make up the hospital's team of morticians, or anatomical pathology technicians as they are also known.
The 39-year-old also happens to be profoundly deaf, but insists that her deafness has not been a barrier to her chosen career. "I've never really considered my deafness to be a hindrance," explains Lisa, who gradually lost her hearing from the age of four, following an accidental head trauma.
"There are challenges, but I take the initiative and always explain my disability and make people aware, so that we can overcome any communication issues. With the proper dedication and effort, deafness is not a barrier for anyone looking towards a similar career."
Lisa is highly committed to her job at the hospital, however, it was not her first career choice.
"When I was six years old I told my parents that I wanted to work with plants and explore the jungle," she says. "As I grew older I made the decision that I wanted to be a botanist and I eventually graduated from Durham University with a biological sciences degree. I was looking forward to finding new plants in exotic places, when an impromptu work experience stint at a local hospital laboratory completely altered my plans and changed my life completely."
Lisa, who is originally from Durham, spent just two weeks on a work experience placement in the laboratory of the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and this was enough for her to decide on a career change.
"I worked in the histopathology lab," she explains, "where they study the changes caused by disease in human tissue.
"The first time I saw a body on the slab my immediate thought was, I wonder what caused their death. I've always been inquisitive, even as a child, if I saw a dead squirrel I'd poke it with a stick and turn it over, trying to work out how it had died.
"I can very clearly remember observing my first post mortem, performed on an elderly man who had died from a suspected heart attack. The pathologist had completed an external examination and as soon as his knife penetrated the skin, all heads turned to me to check whether I was still standing or had been sick on my scrubs.
"Actually, I was totally engrossed in the procedure and was grinning like a Cheshire cat, I'd definitely found my calling."
Lisa started as a medical laboratory assistant and then progressed to trainee biomedical scientist, undertaking postgraduate diplomas to enable her to work in histopathology. She later decided to continue her study and completed a diploma in anatomical pathology, so that she could branch out into the role of mortician. Lisa now undertakes both roles as part of her job at Stafford Hospital.
Although Lisa does not consider her deafness as a hindrance to her career, she does admit that she has had to work twice as hard as the average person to get to the position she is in today.
At university she had a note taker during lectures, but at the end of each day she would have to spend time reading through the notes and then making her own, adding considerable time onto her day.
"I've always pushed myself and worked hard to achieve anything I've set my mind to, I'm proud to be deaf and even if it was possible to restore my hearing I wouldn't want to," says Lisa.
"Being deaf has opened up lots of opporbtunities for me that I wouldn't have had if I had normal hearing. For example, I attended a boarding school for the deaf and as part of my education I got to travel around the East Coast of America in a band.
"I used to be a keen footballer and played for Stafford Rangers women's football team, which led to being selected for the Team GB ladies football team in Australia in 2005, at the Deaflympics.
"This was an amazing experience, especially as we won bronze, though we were denied the silver by the Russians on penalties, something I've still not got over!"
Another, more recent, opportunity has been Lisa's appearance on a BBC TV programme. The mortician was asked to take part in See Hear, the magazine programme for the deaf community. The programme, which aired last week on BBC2, showed 'a day in the life' of Lisa and involved her being followed by a film crew, both at home and at work.
"It was a nerve-wracking experience," she admits, "there were so many takes from different angles; I was unsure what the finished film would be like. I was amazed when I watched the final edit; they managed to successfully demonstrate a day in the life of the profession."
Lisa describes her job at the hospital and explains her typical day, while also giving a guided tour of the mortuary. Starting in the relative's room, Lisa explains that a big part of her job is dealing with the living, not just the dead. "I often have to explain to a grieving family why we need to perform a post mortem on their loved one," explains Lisa. "I also show them into the viewing room so that they can see the body. I have to explain to them that I'm deaf but that I can lip read and vocalise normally. It's probably not something they want to cope with on top of everything else, but it just has to be done."
The team at the mortuary deal with public deaths that are brought into the hospital, such as road traffic accidents or suicides, and part of her job is to liaise with the coroner's office, the police and the undertakers. Lisa is able to undertake every task that her hearing colleagues do, except answering and making telephone calls. The team also work on Home Office post mortems, in which DNA sensitive murders are being investigated. "During these post mortems the room can be heaving with people," explains Lisa, "which can make communication more difficult for me.
"The chatter of police radios in the background can obliterate normal conversation and sometimes complex medical terms can be lost if mumbled by a forensic pathologist.
"The scene of crime officers, or SOCOs, are often dressed from head to toe in the white outfits, complete with face masks, and this renders lip-reading impossible.
"In these circumstances the lab could be a lonely world for a deaf person, but I just make sure that everyone is aware of my deafness, that way communication issues can always be overcome."
Other communication challenges include dealing with doctors with challenging accents and also those with beards.
As we enter the post mortem room, Lisa explains her role in the procedure: "I assist with the external examination of the body and then the evisceration, which means I remove the organs from the body. Then after the pathologist has finished the post mortem, I put the body back together, clean it and give the person back their dignity, ready to be seen by their loved ones.
Moving onto the histopathology laboratory, Lisa highlights the other side of her role: "We process specimens by cutting them into smaller samples; we then cut thin slices, which are placed on a glass slide and stained to show the cellular characteristics, the pathologist can then look at the slide under a microscope and make a diagnosis. It's almost like a factory process and every aspect of it has its place. That's a part of the job I love, the routine of seeing a task through from start to finish and assisting with the diagnosis.
"We're the hidden, less dramatized side of pathology: on Silent Witness we're the extras that can be seen in the background. Television portrays a sanitised version of our job; they never show the blood or the bodily fluids. We often get people who are interested in pathology as a career, but as soon as they see what it actually involves they often want out."
Lisa admits that there are challenges to the job, including having to deal with seriously decomposed bodies, but insists that she copes with them by focusing on the process. "Because of my interest in plants I'm fascinated by insects, such as maggots, so I'm probably more able to cope with that side of the job than some of my colleagues," says Lisa.
"We all find it challenging when we have to assist with the post mortem of a child, though I think it's worse if you have children yourself, which I don't. I have to take a step back, detach myself from it and then just get on with my job.
"It's just as essential to discover the cause of death of a child, as it is an adult.
"We all have to take turns in being on-call and this can be completely exhausting, especially if you're called out three or four times in one night.
So, after dealing with death and grief all day, is it possible to switch off?
"Some days, and nights, can be harrowing," admits Lisa, "but you learn to switch off your emotions as a way of coping. It does sometimes surprise me that I'm able to detach from it, but it helps that when I'm at work I'm thinking about the process and the routine.
"Some people may think there's something wrong with me that I can detach my emotions, maybe there is but it helps to get the job done."
Lisa explains that to do her job you need to have physical strength to cope with the demands of the role, a clear and analytical mind, a sympathetic and caring personality, but also a good sense of humour.
"It's what gets you through the day sometimes," she adds. She also believes that her disability can actually be beneficial to her job. "My other senses are all heightened and I'm more observant, so I often spot things that other technicians miss. My sight, smell and touch more than compensated for my lack of hearing."
When people discover that Lisa is a mortician, their reactions can vary, she explains: "It can sometimes be a bit of a conversation stopper, most people just change the subject. Some are interested, but only to a point, if I start to go into any kind of detail, they're usually begging me to stop.
"It may seem strange and morbid to say that I love my job, but I do, for me it still comes down to that fascination of wanting to find out what caused someone's death."