Dear Commons Community,
Mariel Sander thought she would spend her final month at Columbia University going to parties, taking a modern dance class and road-tripping over spring break to five national parks. Instead, she carried dead bodies off hospital beds and refrigerated trailers.
The coronavirus has killed more than 20,000 people in New York City, straining hospital morgues and funeral homes like never before. To manage the onslaught, hospitals brought on more than 100 temporary morgue workers, according to the city’s Department of Health. As reported by The New York Times.
Ms. Sander was one of them. She had been sitting at home in Oldwick, N.J., restless after her Manhattan campus closed and eager to help in the pandemic. She emailed city hospitals until she ended up in the $25-per-hour job.
Ms. Sander, 21, spoke with The New York Times throughout her month working at a hospital morgue in Brooklyn, providing a rare glimpse inside an operation that is hidden from public view.
She encountered nightmarish moments — ripped body bags, amputated limbs, mysterious liquids pooled on bedsheets.
But she said she also developed a newfound respect for the rituals of death. The morgue team taught her to treat each body with care, a way to respect the family members who could not be inside the hospital to say goodbye to their loved ones.
The experience depleted her physically and emotionally. When carrying bodies, she sometimes glanced at their birth years, written on the body bags, to see how close in age they were to her parents.
“This experience taught me more about empathy than anything else,” she said.
Ms. Sander, who was not authorized to speak with the media about her job, shared her experiences on the condition that the hospital’s name not be published. Many details were corroborated by another employee who was also not authorized to speak with the media and spoke on condition of anonymity. Here is one of her experiences.
April 23: The job takes a toll!
“Ms. Sander has not been sleeping well. She thinks about the silhouette of a stomach under the body bag, the jiggling of skin on a dead body.
Her lower back aches. Lifting a body from the lowest shelf in the trailer is grueling. When she pushes a stretcher through winding hallways and on steep ramps, she often bumps into the wall, causing a twinge in her back.
She carries a thin, older woman whose body is still warm. The feeling reminds her of hugging her grandmother, who died earlier this year.
It is now common for bodies to sit at the morgue for three to four weeks, compared with an average of two to three days before the pandemic. Funeral homes are so backed up that they are turning families away who need burial services.
In addition to refrigeration, the hospital tries to slow decomposition by placing balled bedsheets underneath the bodies’ heads. Keeping the head elevated prevents redness in the face, making it more recognizable to families.”
Ms. Sander, a neuroscience and English major, now feels sure that she wants to go to medical school and better understand how the human body works.
Best of luck to her!