The job with the kiss of death;The knowledge

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Morgue workers are trying to dispel their ghoulish image, reports Martin Whittaker

MORTUARY technician Barry Knight is painfully aware of his job's public image. "People expect an old fella with a bent-over back hauling bodies around," he says.

The truth is very different. The mortuary at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, is not deep in the bowels of some ghastly building. It lies discreetly in the hospital grounds and inside it is bright and clinical.

Few people ever get to witness how a mortuary works. Mr Knight, a 44-year-old senior technician who runs Southmead's morgue, says public knowledge is usually based on what's on television. He has first-hand experience of this. Southmead has featured several times in the TV series, Casualty. Once the director wanted to depict a corpse being rolled out of a fridge for bereaved relatives to view. But Mr Knight refused. "I don't know any mortuary in the country where this would happen. It would be very insensitive to put relatives in that situation."

For Mr Knight and his colleagues the day-to-day realities are usually far less dramatic than the on-screen portrayals. And he insists the mortuary technician's ghoulish image is unfair. It is, he says, a varied, sometimes demanding, often rewarding job.

An estimated 1,600 corpses a year pass through Southmead's mortuary with about 15 post-

mortems performed each week. Bodies are brought in at all hours from the hospital wards, ambulances and undertakers.

In the bright post-mortem room lie white ceramic tables laid out with gleaming surgical instruments. On blackboards at the far end of the room are chalked the weights of organs from recent autopsies. For the technicians - or anatomical pathology technicians (APTs) - the autopsy is a major part of the job.

They help to make external examinations and open up the body for the pathologist to examine and determine the cause of death. They also help take tissue samples for analysis.

Afterwards it is the technician's job to reconstitute the body, to wash and dry it and dress it in a shroud. It has to be presentable enough for relatives to view. A good technician can help soften the blow of bereavement. "You can make it less of an unpleasant experience," says Mr Knight. "We try and make the body look peaceful and as nice as we can."

There's also the paperwork. Records have to be kept and there are telephone enquiries from the coroner's office, the police, hospital staff and relatives.

Part of the mortuary is a viewing room - a sort of non-denominational chapel. The most demanding part of the job is helping bereaved relatives view their loved ones. A sympathetic nature is very much taken into account when selecting candidates for this work. No particular qualifications are needed and there is no qualifying age. But some hospitals do prefer to see evidence of an aptitude for science.

New recruits get practical in-service training from senior technicians and pathologists. Those who have worked for two years or more can gain a certificate in anatomical pathology technology.

"Years ago there weren't any such things as mortuary technicians. You were mortuary attendants or porters. But the job has evolved and what the pathologist expects of you has changed. It's become very much more technical over the past 25 to 30 years."

Michelle Lancaster, 27, started training at Southmead four years ago. She recently gained her certificate, achieving the best marks in the country in anatomical pathology.

"Nobody wants to think of the person they love being messed around with. But it doesn't work like that. There's so much respect given to the bodies here, and it's going this way with a lot of mortuaries now.

"They're tending to take on people who are interested and who get along with others, rather than people who just want to do the job because they're a bit strange."

For more information, contact your local hospital for job vacancies, and for qualification details contact the Royal Insititute of Public Health and Hygiene, 28 Portland Place, London, W1N 4DE

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