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My Story: A pathologist shares grisly tales of disease and death

My Story: A pathologist shares grisly tales of disease and death

Learning all about disease and death isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re someone who can stomach the grisly details, The Quick and the Dead may be the book for you.

My Story: A pathologist shares grisly tales of disease and death

Written by Dr Cynric Temple-Camp,The Quick and the Dead exposes the fascinating world of one of New Zealand’s leading pathologists.

Temple-Camp says people imagine the job of a pathologist is only to crudely carve up the dead, but it’s not entirely true. They spend much of their time investigating, diagnosing and helping the ‘quick’, as the Bible calls people who are alive. In his new book, Temple-Camp takes the reader on a journey as he seeks answers for those who were unlucky, and those still alive to tell the tale.

The Quick and the Dead contains fascinating true stories of cases Temple-Camp has been involved with throughout his career. Read one of the book’s gripping tales below – but be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart!

The Quick and the Dead

Christmas 2001 was coming. All the excitement around the millennium had long since abated: the clock had ticked over midnight, 2000, and the world still spun on its axis, the sun rose punctually in the east just as it had for millions of years already. I was struggling with the annual problem all husbands have. What on earth could I buy Elayne for Christmas? I had no idea where to begin looking and there was only two weeks to go. The pressure gnawed at me. And today, the 11th of December, was our wedding anniversary. We were going out for a celebratory dinner.

The phone rang. I snatched it up. It was Jeanette Parks. Jeanette is a wonderful detective with whom we worked closely. She’s small of stature, has masses of thick, curly, red hair and a smile that could launch ships. Amongst her many accomplishments, she’s a highly skilled hunter on horseback. We all loved Jeanette and her bright mind and quick wit.

‘What’s up, Jeanette?’ She never messed us around, so I knew a call from her was important.

‘Got a decomp for you out beyond Halcombe.’


A decomp was a decomposed corpse.

All of a sudden, my mouth was full of saliva and a foul taste — completely psychosomatic, but there all the same. I swallowed the disgust, but my mood dimmed several shades. Where the hell was Halcombe, anyway? I had an idea it was way out beyond Feilding. Bugger.

‘Yep. Don’t think we’ve got a murder here, but you do need to see this.’

I loaded up my pathology registrars, Stephen and Kate, and we set off for the rural back-blocks of the Manawatu. After the usual aimless and irritating meander amongst the identical, unmarked rural-type proto-roads, we found Tokorangi Road and there, by the roadside, our destination became immediately obvious.

A solitary police car stood sentinel on the road. It blocked half the carriageway as the roadside ditches were so steep that you dared not pull in too close to the verge. Not that it mattered: there was minimal traffic. We pulled up behind the police car.

Murder scenes are a bustle of activity, by contrast with this one. There was only the one car and Jeanette waiting at the gate. She laughed at the sight of us. I fleetingly wondered why, but decided it must have been because we all enjoyed each other’s company so much.

‘So, what surprises do you have tucked away for us?’ I asked. We stood by the gate as Jeanette pulled her notebook from behind her stab-proof vest. Even back then the police were wearing them routinely.

‘Ed Laurence is a retired, divorced farmer living on his own. He’s been down at the hospital in Palmy for all sorts of problems. God knows what they are.’ Jeanette flashed her brilliant smile at us. ‘Anyway, no-one checks up on him regularly, apparently. Lots of mail in his box.’ Jeanette pointed at the crammed letterbox. ‘Copies of the Guardian going back a month plus other crap. Rural area here, so none would even notice.’

‘So he’s probably about a month gone? Is it really bad in there?’ My mind was already messing with my body and the very thought of what might be waiting made me feel like vomiting on the spot.

But Jeanette’s face was untroubled. She smiled knowingly at us.

‘Just go up and have a look. He’s in the bedroom. Duncan has set up stepping plates for you.’

Detective Duncan Taylor was Jeanette’s partner in the force. Duncan was a tall cop, one of the tallest, as I remember him. He had a great sense of humour, but he was deadly serious about his work, a true professional, the best type of provincial policeman. The perfect foil for Jeanette, really. They were the long and the short of it.

We went in with some trepidation. I was in my usual jacket and tie, as befitted my status as a consultant. Kate was in a summer dress with sandals, Stephen with his Doc Martens boots but otherwise unmemorably attired, as we boys often tend to be.

I was sure now that Jeanette was laughing at us about something. I felt suspicious and uneasy.

Duncan had placed the first stepping plate just inside the front door. The second was a good metre beyond that and the third equally further on. These may have been small steps for Duncan’s great stride but they were great leaps for me and I am six foot tall.

I leapt to the next plate and landed with a crash. Kate and Stephen followed behind. They are both shorter than me but were managing as nimbly as a pair of high-school triple jumpers. We followed the trail of plates into the passage. We were still five metres from the bedroom door when I looked down.

It was ghastly. The carpet was heaving with maggots. Fat bloated maggots. Their segmented bodies pulsed, stretching out until they were half their usual diameter, latching onto the carpet fibres at their front and then telescoping their bodies forward. They had already travelled a vast distance from where they had been born, metres away down the hall, with this pulsatile motion. Relative to their size, it would be about the same as you and me walking the 70 kilometres from Palmerston North to Whanganui.

Disgustingly, they were already hauling their eager, maggoty bodies up the sides and over the tops of the stepping plates. I had crushed several beneath my shoes, their smeared entrails contaminating the anti-slip ribbing of the plates. I felt sick at the thought of those burst maggots I was mushing beneath the soles of my shoes.

There was nothing to be done but continue jumping from one plate to the next, ignoring the grubs underfoot. Duncan was there waiting for us in the bedroom.

‘Gidday, Doc.’ He nodded at Stephen and Kate. They, too, were well known by now to the Manawatu police. ‘There he is.’ Duncan pointed at the bed.

I looked curiously. There was surprisingly little smell.

The drifting, dense miasma of putrefaction had largely gone, replaced by an almost savoury aroma. A skull covered by dry, yellowish, parchment-like skin lay on the pillow, the sockets staring sightlessly at the ceiling. The bedclothes were drawn up covering the body, but the arms lay on top at rest. The man had clearly been in a state of repose when he died.

I moved closer. There was a large and impressive watch on the left wrist, but I noticed it had stopped at twenty to three. There was a necklace pendant around the neck.

‘Looks pretty natural, doesn’t it?’ I said, turning to Duncan. He nodded.

‘The house is secure and there’s no sign of a forced entry,’ he told us. ‘There doesn’t seem to be anything obviously missing or disturbed. He was found by a friend from Halcombe who dropped in to check on him. He’s been in poor health for a while, apparently.’

Kate shrieked and swore. We looked at her in astonishment. She was vigorously shaking her feet.

‘The little bastards are climbing me!’ We looked down at her feet and so they were. The maggots were avidly scaling the sides of her open sandals and wriggling over her feet. I looked at mine. They were there, too, but closed shoes and socks didn’t seem to appeal to them as much as bare flesh. I suppose they were starving, looking for a fresh source of food, for they had sure as hell completely cleaned up the man lying there in the bed.

Maggots will eat the living, too, of course. In rural New Zealand they lay their eggs around a sheep’s arse, where they will harvest the merest specks of shit on which to feast and grow. And they will voraciously attack the slightest skin scratch and then devour it away to make a huge rotting hole. They will do the same to people, colonising the neglected elderly or infants in the same way. They have the tools for the job too. They poo a toxic brew of enzymes over any wound to break down the flesh, which they then grind to mince with rows of hard, sharp hooks lining their mouths. They are the least gracious of diners, eating off the very table on which they have also crapped.

I shook the bastards off my feet but fresh waves began their assault. Belatedly, I realised why Jeanette was laughing at us when we arrived. She knew exactly what would happen to us inside. I had better make this as quick as possible so we could get clear of these dreadful creatures.

I moved to the side of the bed. Here the bedding and the floor were darkly stained where the purging of his body fluids had occurred, gushing out as the corpse swelled with the gases of decay. I pulled back the bedding. Surprisingly little smell wafted from beneath the covers.

The whole body was skeletonised. A fresh tide of maggots disturbed by the sudden light swept out from inside the body and spilled out over the covers, adding to the thousands and thousands in the room. He was still wearing his pyjamas.

‘Collect some of the maggots into a couple of containers,’ I said to Stephen. ‘Maybe we can get them dated and get a rough time of death. The experts apparently can figure out what stage they’re at and calculate the number of days since hatching, giving a rough post-mortem interval.’

‘Can you do us a Life Extinct certificate?’ Jeanette asked us, still grinning, when we got outside. We could. There was no doubt that life was extinct. But what was the cause of death?

The autopsy was unrevealing, with only 24 kilograms of bone left behind by the feeding flies. There were no bone fractures to suggest an assault. The lumbar spine was twisted into an S-shape but that was just an old malformation he’d had all his life.

It is often the case with skeletal remains that there is little to find on which to re-create the story of the final passage into death. This case became memorable for the wrong reason. It was either Jeanette or Kate who suggested we wind up Duncan. It was part of our ‘black humour’.

‘Tell him it’s not a natural death. Tell him it’s a murder,’ I was asked.

He had already arranged for the house to be decontaminated and disinfected. If this were a murder there would be hell to pay with any evidence now obliterated.

Being of a naturally mischievous disposition, I went along with it. I called Duncan.

‘Bad news, mate,’ I said to him. ‘This could be a homicide.’

‘Why? What’s happened?’ Duncan’s voice was at once high and tense. He was worried, I could tell. I knew the industrial cleaners were even then at work on the house.

‘Fractured skull, mate. Doesn’t look good. You didn’t drop him bringing him out, did you?’

He was really anxious. I strung him along for a bit, but eventually I took pity on him and told him all was okay. It was a natural cause of death.

We all laughed at this. It wasn’t at all disrespectful to my deceased patient, Ed. I guess in this job we need to find humour and levity where we can. Otherwise the shocking sights you see will just get you down in the end. Humour — one of humanity’s defining qualities — is the best antidote. I reckon we need a lot more of it.

But the punchline to this story was as unfunny as it gets. Duncan came into the mortuary soon after this episode, but under very different circumstances. That is another story.

We finally figured out Ed’s cause of death by consulting his history. He’d had surgery on his right foot to release a trapped nerve and as a result of this he had developed a clot in the veins of his leg. These deep vein thromboses after surgery are a real nuisance and can be fatal. Ed was put on warfarin to dampen down the clotting factors in his blood. When it works, this treatment stops the clot spreading to other veins and, much more importantly, stops the growth of a tail of fresh thrombus hanging freely off the back of the clot. This tail can break off and travel to the lungs to cause a fatal embolism, just as had happened to Larry Hall.

The blood thinners never give 100 per cent protection, and odds are that it must have been a pulmonary embolism that killed him as he lay there in his bed. That was my best guess, as I explained to the coroner. It had to be a guess, because the ultimate evidence of the clot had disappeared out the window on the wings of the carrion flies.

Even with the organs all still there, the story sometimes — often, even — still remains a mystery with decomposed bodies. In such circumstances, ‘obscure natural causes’ is the unsatisfactory best that we can offer to the coroner and to the family.

Ed Laurence. November 2001. Requiescat in pace.

© The Quick and the Dead

By Cynric Temple-Camp

Published by HarperCollins New Zealand

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