Dad took me to work: The morgue was my favorite spot

An excerpt from Pet Goats and Pap Smears.

Both my parents are physicians. They are never home much because they work all the time. With no reliable child care, Dad takes me to work. The morgue is my favorite spot. It’s like our secret clubhouse. Nobody ever bothers us there.

Entering the morgue, Dad opens the stainless-steel doors to the cooler and says, “Good morning! Is anyone home?” Then Dad props me up and introduces me to everyone. Today he announces, “Look! It’s Sally!”

I interview Sally while Dad examines body parts in a bucket by the sink. I always have a lot to talk about. I tell Sally all about my life and ask all about her life too. Leading with an open-ended question, I ask, “So how are things going for you?” I pause. Then I answer for her. I assume Sally is a brave woman who has led a heroic life. Dad says she’s probably a single mom, her life cut short by poverty. He eventually goes along with my version.

Dad and I work lots of odd jobs. Though his main job is at the hospital, Dad takes random jobs for the city, where he helps even more people in medical crisis. Leaving the morgue, we head to the drug addiction clinic and then work the night shift at the police station.

At the addiction clinic, in Camden, New Jersey, I sit between Dad and his clients. Dad introduces me the same way every time. “This is Pamela. She’s a doctor-in-training. Show her your track marks.”

Today it’s Mr. Jones who rolls up his sleeves to display his scarred arms. After a brief exam, Dad—a philosophy major in college—offers this guy all sorts of advice.

“How many kids do you have?” Dad begins.

“Got three, Doc. Twin girls and a boy.”

“How much money do you estimate that you have spent on heroin in the last ten years?”

“Not sure, Doc.”

Dad does a few calculations on a scrap of paper. He shows Mr. Jones the total. “With the money you spent on heroin, you could have sent all your kids to a fine community college and had enough left over for a car.”

“Probably right.”

Dad looks at Mr. Jones and admits, “I got an addiction too,” as he pulls out a bag of banana-flavored Circus Peanut marshmallow candies. “I love Circus Peanuts, but I’ve had this unopened bag in my desk for two years.

I don’t allow my addiction to control me.”

As Mr. Jones stands up to leave, Dad asks, “Do you have any words of wisdom for our doctor-in-training?”

“Don’t do drugs,” says Mr. Jones. “Save your money. Your dad is a very smart man.”

At noon, Dad passes out lunch money to clients in need. He hands ten bucks to a transsexual woman in a head wrap and tells us to “go have fun.” So I spend the afternoon on a street corner with recovering heroin addicts, eating pizza and learning Puerto Rican Spanish slang from a sexy black woman with huge biceps.

Then we head to the Philadelphia jail, where we evaluate drunk drivers. Every eighth night, Dad and I have a slumber party at the police station. We set up our cots in a cinder-block room with Dad’s name on the door. Every week, I’m given a new policeman coloring book with a fresh box of crayons. Coloring the same policeman on horseback each week bores me, so I get clearance to interview the inmates.

“Don’t get close to the bars or they’ll grab you,” the guard warns. But I’m never afraid.

In the first cell are three cackling black women. In the next, an old, naked white lady masturbates against the bars. I sit down in front of a caged, middle-aged white woman. She says, “Hey kid, get me a cigarette.”

“Why?”

“Helps me cope.”

“Okay, I’ll check.” I tell the guard, “That lady over there wants a smoke.” Then I wander off with Dad down the hall.

At midnight, Dad and I are sleeping when suddenly there’s a Bang! Bang! Bang! on our door. The policeman says, “Hey, Doc, we got some 1037s (a code number for a DUI).”

“Okay. How many do you have?” Dad asks.

“We got three waiting for you.”

“Let’s bring them in one at a time.” Dad moves to his desk as a black man staggers into our room and sits in a folding metal chair across from Dad.

“Mr. Johnson, I’m the police doctor and this is Pamela, a doctor-in-training. I’d like to ask you a few questions. Have you been drinking?”

“Huh? Uh . . . yeah.”

“What were you drinking?”

“Jus’ a nip of Thunderbird.”

“I’d like you to do several tests for me. Lean forward and breathe toward me.” Dad notes the smell of alcohol. Then he has Mr. Johnson do the walk-the-line test. But Mr. Johnson stumbles and leans against the wall. Dad types up a few things on his manual typewriter and Mr. Johnson leaves, just as the next man staggers in.

We talk to drunk men all night. On an average Christmas Eve, we see up to thirty prisoners during our twelve-hour shift, but if there’s a big snowstorm we might only get eight. Dad estimates he has seen 13,500 DUIs over all the years he has worked there.

We also spend two nights each month at the State Psychiatric Hospital talking to schizophrenics. Plus we’re on call for the Philadelphia Fire Department twice per month. Sometimes we get calls to go to huge apartment fires at two o’clock in the morning. I usually sit in the lead fire truck and drink hot chocolate while talking with the crew.

I learn to interview patients by watching Dad. He introduces me the same way to every patient: “This is Pamela. She’s a doctor-in-training. Do you mind if she sits here while I talk to you?”

Nobody ever says no.

After work, we return to our suburban neighborhood where I find my friends playing house with dolls. My best friend keeps begging me to play. But playing house is never my thing. And playing with Barbies just seems silly after examining real people.

Pamela Wible pioneered the community-designed ideal medical clinic and blogs at Ideal Medical Care. She is the author of Pet Goats and Pap Smears.

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  • Donna McMurtry

    What a story- loved it! I immediately liked your dad. What a unique education you received. I am sure there are many who will dispute the appropriateness of a father taking his little one to the morgue every day to talk to the dead, but, it appears that the dead may still have a lot to teach the living. Truly a unique childhood upbringing- out of curiosity- did your mom know where you were going to be on these outings.. yea, I know she was a doctor too but she was also a mother. It seems your parents contributed to a very successful career for you as a physician and author. Hmm I think now I will have to read your book.

    Congratulations.

  • http://euonymous.wordpress.com euonymous

    I have GOT to read this book. Your dad IS a wonderful man and you’ve had an incredible introduction to the real world. Looks like it was a valuable life experience. Years ago I knew somebody whose mother was a doctor in a similar situation. She would be called for immediate assistance at all odd hours of the night. I remember stories of 3 am wakeups where my friend was taken along on these emergency efforts. He had a rich imagination and an amazing ability to tell stories. It may be related to the wide ranging exposure to so much at a young age. Who knows?

  • http://www.facebook.com/drtaher Taher Kagalwala

    This had my laughing and wondering at the same time. On the one hand, your father emerges as a doctor and father who thinks out of the box; on the other hand, the places you went to with him are so … morbid. Gruesome … some would say. And yet, these very unusual places have made you what you are … a successful doctor and a good author as well. I salute both of you.

  • ninguem

    ya know, Pam……….

    The morgue I can see, but Circus Peanuts, that’s just sick.

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