The First Case: First Dissection
The pounding of my heart brought me back to those days when I had still been a curious and eager boy.
The first time I’d stood in the autopsy room facing a fresh corpse, I’d just turned 18.
The head surgeon’s face had been serious as he’d opened up the corpse with meticulous care. I’d stared at the scene with a blank face, although my heart had been pounding faster and faster.
“Don’t take your dad’s proud appearance at face value; it took a lot of hard work to get there.”
When I was a child, the moment when my dad stepped out of the door was the most anticipated part of my every day. Watching him carrying that polished gun, and wearing that uniform with every button fastened… There would be 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 hoped that his little boy would succeed him. But my mom didn’t agree.
As a family that had worked as policemen for generations, my mom wasn’t willing to let her own son sell his life as well. In her opinion, a safe and rather peaceful career as a doctor was the best choice. She herself was the head nurse in a hospital at the time, taking care of things both big and small. Besides, doctors save people. Where does it not compare to the police?
So which one: doctor or policeman? The opinions of those two never coincided. The young me who didn’t want to offend either of them could only swing from one side to another, helpless. For a while, I was going to be a policeman. Then for the next while, being a doctor didn’t seem so bad either. So in this manner, I had swayed back and forth between policeman and doctor, doctor and policeman, through my three years of high school. Only when I had been filling in my career survey did I discover a new option: forensic sciences.
Wasn’t this having the best of both worlds?
Even though my mom was rather reluctant, with my dad’s support, in the end I filled it out as my first choice.
Remember, this was back in 1998. Forensic science was a 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 average undergraduate score-actually, it wasn’t high enough to get into the top colleges- I got into the Department of Forensic Sciences at Wannan University. Of my 40 classmates in the department, only I had chosen this field of my own volition. All the others had been forced into it by various circumstances. And so, after some anticipation and some dread, we began our strange new lives.
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, and its dropout rates incomparable.
I was lucky. When the summer vacation arrived, my dad helped me search for an internship with much enthusiasm, allowing me to go to the police’s Forensics Department to get an early taste of what the job was like. Once I realized that those thrilling scenes on TV I had watched were about to become a reality, I counted down the days left, excited and praying that the day would arrive sooner.
Everything was normal for the few days before I arrived at the Forensics Department. That’s no wonder: in rural cities like my old home, homicides or murders are still very rare. Sheng Bing, who is just a few years older than me, was already the head of the Forensics Department at the time. His success led him to becoming my internship teacher. Even though he stopped working as a medical examiner later on, he will always hold a high position in my heart.
At the time, I followed him around all day like a small, devout follower: sticking onto him like glue, going wherever he went. The most he would do per day on usual was to identify injuries that caused the death of the victims. Even though I took these lessons with due diligence, alas, my knowledge was too limited. My mind was like a puddle of water, and the information a river. The days passed by neither fast nor slow, until one day, the telephone in the Forensics Department rang out of the blue.
“Forensics Department,” I said into the receiver.
“I am Xiao Li from the Criminal Justice Department. 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 one of complete 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 on that the so-called “leads” reveal whether the suspect or culprit is known or not. If the culprit is known, then there isn’t a lot of pressure on the medical examiners and they only have to do a few basic checks. If the culprit is not known, then there are many things medical examiners need to analyze. The scene-inspection and autopsy also takes twice as long in such a case.
“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,” whose alarm blared the whole way. An inexplicable feeling of excitement rose within me.
But the crime scene was quiet, much quieter than I had expected.
Yellow warning tapes were strung alongside the road, blocking the curious people gathering into a crowd. From afar, there didn’t seem to be anything worth seeing, so I wondered what all those people were looking at. Only when I got closer did I see the blood on the floor, some in drops and the rest splattered. Sheng Bing took out a toolkit and retrieved a sample from both blood shapes to test for DNA—a very advanced process for the time. It was done through electrophoresis, making the process very complicated. Thus, the usage of this high-tech method was not the norm—especially when the suspect had already been identified.
We finished investigating the crime scene posthaste 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 been transferred to the funeral home.”
“F-funeral home?” Although I had already prepared my mind, since I was to be performing autopsies sooner or later, in the end, I was still a little nervous. No, the feeling at the time was also laced with traces of excitement. “Didn’t they say the case was already solved and all the people involved arrested? Yet we still need to do an autopsy? Isn’t it useless now?”
“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 part of the basics! The autopsy is an important step to ensure accuracy and acquire further evidence.”
“Even so, isn’t this just unneeded labor?”
Brother Sheng Bing gave me a smile and didn’t press on. “Go watch and learn. Next time, it will be your turn. Even though the Investigation Department said the case has already been solved, things may turn out different. Don’t believe it? Just wait and see for yourself.”
Hearing him say that it would be my turn next made me both excited and nervous, more than I already was.
Would I be able to pull off an autopsy if I’d never held a scalpel before? No matter what, this time I had to understand what I was about to observe!
Funeral homes are, in general, far away from the residential areas. Utilizing my time in the car, I picked up the case investigation file and flipped through it.
In this gang fight, 18-year-old participant Rao Bo was stabbed by a knife, fell to the ground in an instant, and died 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 my words were casual, in secret I 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” on it. Even though it was a hot, sweltering summer day, 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 compact ventilator attached to the window. This was already considered above-average in quality. In the winter, at least you didn’t have to deal with the cold wind while dissecting in the room. But in the summer, the corpse rots with ease, and the foul odor can’t be dissipated. The room becomes like a poison gas chamber. Therefore, autopsy rooms were changed according to season in those days.
A white body bag—doomed to never see the sun again—was placed on the table. An eerie feeling pervaded the air.
“Bring it outside, the air in here is not good,” Sheng Bing said. An assistant dragged a moving bed over. The two medical examiners put on their gloves and lifted the body with ease, placing it on said bed. At the time, I couldn’t help but feel emotional at the scene; once a person stops breathing, it seems they really 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 highly unscientific, but conditions were limited. Even today, almost ten years later, many places can only afford open-air rooms.
I followed behind them with wooden movements, my heart beginning to panic. Was this really the Rao Bo I knew of or not?
Once the corpse was in place, Brother Sheng Bing’s work was about to begin. His expression was stern and actions meticulous, as he took his time 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 was cruel and fierce…
The body bag opened in slow motion to reveal a pale and stiff, yet familiar, face.
The realisation was like a bolt from the blue! All of a sudden, the smell of blood and the 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, his visage remained the same. Yes, it was the Rao Bo I knew…
My first dissection was to be on my elementary school classmate… I must be delusional! How could God play such a cruel trick on me?
Brother Sheng Bing probably saw my strange look, and thus asked, “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 around 10 seconds before reaching a decision. “I won’t leave. I’ll stay.” If I couldn’t even pass this trial, how would I ever become a medical examiner?
Brother Sheng Bing looked at me with sympathy. “Alright, staying is good too. Don’t be too serious and just return to the car if you can’t stand it. That’d be okay.”
“I can stand it.” My whole body was numb with a courage from who knows where that kept my feet planted, as I stood still while staring at the dissection table.
The whole body bag was then removed. My former tablemate and playmate lay in front of me: one arm raised in rigor-mortis, and eyes open a small gap as if staring at something from beyond life. It was nothing like “falling asleep,” as books would have you believe. His white t-shirt was dyed red with blood, and even his pants were stained. After removing his clothes, blood could still be seen flowing 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 sat on the side, nervous and jotting down some notes. As for what they were saying, I couldn’t process it at all. I just stared at the body, my mind a complete blank.
After a short while, Rao Bo’s clothes were stripped off, revealing a tattoo obscured by the blood I had never seen before. I squeezed my eyes shut, unable to bear it, but still caught a glance of the fat and muscles from his chest and abdomen. It seemed the wound was quite deep.
The head surgeon was Sheng Bing. He stood on the right side of the body, holding a ruler and measuring the wound with care. I heard the numbers Sheng Bing reported: 7 knife wounds, 3 of which were in the chest, and 4 in the abdomen. The object used had been rather blunt but still sharp enough to do the job, and all of the wounds had been caused by the same object. Every cut was around 3-4 cm deep. The cause of the injuries was thus made clear: he had been 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, or 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 to work. Sheng Bing was meticulous in cutting the body open from the neck to the pubic symphysis. The subcutaneous tissue appeared: the yellow and red formed 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 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, and the knife held parallel. Do not accidentally scratch the bones, and even more so the chest.”
Watching Rao Bo’s torso being opened up part by part, my nerves tightened to their limits and I did what I could to resist the urge to throw up.
Soon, the stomach was opened up and the intestines exposed to the air struggled to rush out. Brother Sheng Bing 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!”
He used the scalpel to cut along the costal cartilage, quick and skillful.
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 had 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. All of a sudden, I 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 there 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 blood and poured it into a container.
“The internal blood loss is 1500 mL,” Sheng Bing said, “and adding in the external blood loss, it’s is enough for a person to die. Coupled with the corpse markings, the cause of death is very clear.”
Without a break, Brother Sheng Bing then 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 a small hacksaw to saw through the skull. Even now, I still fear the smell of a bone 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 stabbing the victim in the chest. They all say they stabbed him in the stomach.”
Modern hoodlums all seemed to know that piercing the stomach had a smaller chance of killing a person than piercing the chest.
Xiao Li raised his hands, implying they were tied.
“Did you bring the knives?” Sheng Bing scrutinized the wounds on the body for some time. All of a sudden, 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 examined the wounds and picked up three transparent blade sheaths before putting them over the three knives. He studied the three edges carefully, gave a little smile, 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 uniform and seem to have a similar, almost identical, shape. However, take a closer look at the wall of this wound. 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? Why only 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 made by bumps on the blade, such as in 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 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 once. However, I am certain that the fatal wound was caused by this knife.”
“With your incredible analysis and deduction, we are assured.” Xiao Li was happy with the result and ran off.
Off to the side, I stood shocked. 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 looked at Brother Sheng Bing with reverence. “I sure didn’t think there would be such problems from a case that seemed to be solved, and that we’d have to solve them. I totally underestimated the job of medical examiners!”
Medical Examiner Ze Sheng also said, “Yes, with these kinds of analyses 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. That 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, the true culprit wouldn’t have been fished out, and the other two may have been implicated…
To me, that day was an enlightening day. I finally made up my mind and decided to become a good medical examiner.
For my mom, who has an uncanny interest in novels regarding corpse dissectors.