"We do house calls and hospital calls or wherever people are found dead," she divulges. "We have contracts with funeral homes. We also pick people up from the Medical Examiner's office who have been autopsied, and deliver them to funeral homes, also people who have donated organs. I pick up dead people. I've made that joke at work," the Portland native whispers over a pint of Widmer, "I see dead people!"
"Being in the hospitality business before this, and bartending, I've had to clean up shit and vomit before, and I've dealt with all kinds of people. And so dealing with bodies and families is, to me, way better than dealing with an asshole at the bar who doesn't want to leave. I can deal with anything after that. It's a slower pace and calmer, but on the other hand, it can be ten times heavier."
On a typical workday, Hutchinson partners with supervisor Christina Saurs at 7 a.m., and works a 12-hour shift picking up bodies from one place and taking them to another in a discrete Chevy van with tinted windows. "There are two gurneys in the back," she smiles, describing her ride. "And a CD player!" With a laugh as infectious as the plague, she gives a hint of the tale to come.
"I bring along CDs, or listen to the radio, depending on my mood, or if we just went on a bad call. We listen to a lot of rock and roll. 107.5 is my partner Christina's and my favorite station because they play a lot of Queen. Christina likes hearing the song 'Another One Bites the Dust'! It really gets her going."
"Day shift is different from night. Nights tend to be slower, because bodies are usually found in the daytime. Also, funeral homes are busy doing other stuff--funerals, talking to families, or whatever. They can't always do it, so we do it for them."
"Al is my main supervisor. My interview was like this. This is Al: 'Have you ever seen a dead body before?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' He says, 'Do you want to do this?' and I'm like, 'Yeah.' And he goes, 'Okay!' Then he goes, 'What are your interests?' I told him that I'm really into forensics, things like that, and he goes, 'These are the shifts that I'm hiring for. Which one do you want?' It was cool. The main thing is being comfortable with seeing a body. The next tough thing is letting it go when the shift is over."
FAMILIES ARE SAD
Although it may appear that Hutchinson takes her job too lightly, she isn't blind to the grim realities of her situation.
"If you don't have to talk to families it's a good day. Families are sad. I've done... maybe 40 calls and only two families have been seriously comfortable with it. Most families are upset. It's kind of hard. You have to explain to them what it is we do...because they'll tell us, 'We want this set-up' or 'We have arrangements.' We have to tell them that we're strictly delivery. We just take them there, and the funeral director will call you. But if they have special requests we'll write those down and give them to the funeral homes."
Hutchinson, and her numerous co-workers, who fill a 24/7 schedule, wear suits and dark colors.
"We have to wear them because we're representing the funeral homes and so we can't show up in jeans and smoking cigarettes. It's an old-school respectable kind of atmosphere. A lot of people expect us to show up in a hearse. We had a guy... He didn't want us to take his wife because we didn't show up in a hearse. His daughter and a hospice nurse tried to explain to him that they don't do that anymore."
In what is all too often an emotional experience for everyone involved, the job becomes excruciating when someone refuses to let go of the loved-one, physically clinging to the deceased.
"You give them their time, you know? It gets pretty heavy. Usually there's another member of the family or a hospice nurse around who will tell them, 'Okay, come on,' and pull them away. When we get calls like that I want to get the body out as fast as I can."
"My first house call was really, really, really hard. It was my first day on the job and there was a house call, and I was like, 'oh boy. It's really on the job training.' They can't say, 'Okay, let's practice!' You have no idea, so the partner I was with basically whispered everything I needed to do. I did it, but it was very hard for me at first. You have to try and detach yourself from it and do what you have to do. I have to understand what the family is going through, but try and separate my emotions from it."
TAKING IT PERSONAL
"It's not as hard anymore, except for certain calls. You know, like when the person's kind of cute (laughs). On every call I get, I like to look at them and try to get a sense of who they were. I look at all the old pictures and things in the room. I like to know what their birthday is, their sign, things like that. 'Ooh! He was an Aries!' Just for my own personal understanding."
"Most of the time they're just the way they were when they passed away. Their mouths are open unless someone has shut them, or their arms and legs are bent out or whatever. If they're elderly, or if they died of diseases, cancer, something like that, they seem at peace. But we do get calls where the people do not seem at peace... I don't know. I guess it's like a look or a feeling I get sometimes that someone wasn't really ready to go. Most of the time it's expected. They expected to die and their bodies reflect that."
"We pick up people everywhere. Bathrooms, on the toilet, they're leaning, but still on the bowl. We picked up a lady who was showering, or it was a hot day so maybe she just walked around the house naked, but she died of something and was half in the kitchen and half in the living room. You get them everywhere in the house."
"There have been certain calls that have caused me to ask myself, literally, 'What the fuck am I doing? Do you really want to be doing this? What the hell am I thinking?' I think you have to want to do it, to do it."
PURGING-- THE UNAVOIDABLE STENCH OF DEATH
Like most people, Hutchinson has had to endure shitty jobs here and there. One of the worst, she says, was working as a bottle and can counter at Fred Meyer. I ask her which smells worse: recycling centers or human remains? In her typical coping-mechanism comic fashion, she rolls her eyes and answers emphatically.
"Um... DEAD PEOPLE! We humans stink! When you die, you purge. If you went to the bathroom before you died, maybe you'll just pee. Depending on how long you've sat, you'll lose things not just from your butt, but things will come out of every orifice, every hole. And it's different colors! It's all purge. It's not just the bowels."
"A fresh one is warm," she elucidates. "If you pick up a person who passed away at 1 o'clock, and you get there at 3:30 or 4, they're going to be warm. They still have some heat coming off them. There's blood too, yeah. Even when they're still warm, there's still a smell of death. Like, 'death' is in the air. All the cliches are true."
"The next level would be a day or two old. They smell more, because there's a gas effect coming off, they're more swollen and a little more rotten. It's not rotten right away, but by the second day, when you move them, then you smell it. They're stiff and the skin breaks when you move them. I will never forget those smells for the rest of my life. If you've been dead for a couple days, then you'll really purge," she smiles, wiggling her fingers menacingly. "Then you have bugs and maggots and all the creatures of the night coming out of you. It's gnarly. It all depends on how much the body has decayed. They usually start from the outside and work their way in. You're decaying, and they're eating you... I've gotten used to it (laughs). I can change your diaper now! I wouldn't have been able to before!
"By the third or fourth day they're pretty much rotten. They're pretty gassy, and that's when they start to really purge. The skin is really moist and slippery like they have on body oil or something. When you grab them it's like cutting and squeezing a lemon or an orange; juice comes out.
"A lot of people turn dark depending on how long they've been decaying. People change color. We picked up this one guy who was white, but the skin was jet black. I thought it was a black guy!"
Has she ever been splattered with purge?
"No," Hutchinson says sickly. "I've just stepped in it."
THE HURLING CURVE
"An extreme example of the 'hurling curve' is a body that's been there for a long time. It has decayed and become 'part of the earth' and we have to scrape it up and bag it. And you gag, and you come back. We were going on a call the other day, and for some reason, at lunch I said, 'I'm not going to finish this food,' and it was good a good thing, because I would have hurled right away. I had to eat afterward.
"We have splash-masks, nose masks, Vick's [Vapor Rub] is God! I'm trying to figure out, I know there's something out there that's better than Vick's. I'm thinking about sandalwood or cedar, like an essential oil to put up here (under the nose to disguise the stench). Vick's is okay, but sandalwood, or frankincense, or bay leaf, something really strong would be great. There's something else out there that will work, but that's what we use."
SUICIDE? GET A LIFE!
"I have a hard time with suicides. I don't like them. It's my personal opinion. Picking up people who committed suicide is really bad. We get so mad, because what we're doing is really bad. We've got it hard, you know? It makes me want to blow my head off!" she says, laughing. "No, it just makes me sad in general."
THE BAG N' DRAG
"On house calls, family calls, even nursing home calls," Hutchinson explains, "we use linen and plastic to wrap the bodies. We always have to use plastic. We wrap them up and leave the face open. Usually you always take a person who has passed away out of the house with the face open, and then you close the bag later. It's a tradition.
"If there's no family around, we don't use linen at all. We just bag 'em and wrap them in plastic. It's mainly for containing pathogens; there are a lot of people who have contagious and airborne diseases. It's for protection. And like I mentioned earlier, people lose bodily fluid, and you don't know if they're going to do it right away or later on in the day. You wrap them and strap them in so they don't fall off when you're driving, and zip it up.
"We have gloves and two types of protective suits, one's really heavyweight. Depending on how severely the body is decaying, we have different levels of suits and bags. We have heavyweight, Bag 'Em & Drag 'Em bags. The only time we use the heavy weight bags is if it's a super big person and we can't carry them on a backboard. We put them in a bag that has handles on the side, and we drag them. We try not to have family around for that. People don't want to see a family member that they loved treated like that. We always tell the family, you know, 'This is the situation. This is the only way we can do it,' and they're usually comfortable with that.
"We always look at the body before we take it, so we know what to expect. You don't want to go in and say, 'Okay, we're ready,' then go, 'Sorry family, excuse me! We have to go out and get our HUGE GIGANTIC MEDICAL BAG and come in with suits of armor on.' You want to look at the body first and tell them what you're going to do so they're not shocked.
As easy as Hutchinson makes her job seem, things do go wrong. One time she got trapped under a large corpse and had to lift it alone, without damaging the merchandise.
"I was by myself and delivering a body to a funeral home... I literally had to use every muscle to lift it. I thought, Okay, I can do this. I was thinking about the kegs I've lifted. You've lifted kegs, you can do this. It was the worst thing ever. It took me about three minutes to lift him. He was a big guy too. I was panicking. I did it though! Now I know I can do it."
"The worst case scenario would be a really huge person of sizes 300 lbs or more, upstairs, in a back room on a bed, or on the floor. Or just, ANYWHERE upstairs. 350 lbs isn't all that bad. I mean, it's still heavy. We'll go with 400 pounds and they're on a bed or whatever, and you can't get the gurney in the room, or it's a person who is 6'7 and they're on the floor, and you have to go up the stairs instead of down. You pray as you lift and you go really slowly, because you'll die otherwise, and they'll have to send another team out! I suggest that the American public should go on a diet... to help us all out!" she says, laughing out loud.
To her surprise, one of Hutchinson's first calls was to a good friend's house whose grandmother had died.
"I saw my friend on the couch. She was really upset, and I wanted to let her know I was there for her. We hugged for ten minutes, and she said, 'I'm so glad you're here. I'm so glad you're the one, because I was telling them I didn't want my grammy to go away with a stranger. Of all the people, it's so awesome it's you.' That's when I realized that taking this job was a good thing for me. It was a confirmation."
Hutchinson told me her mother offered her this advice; "Someone brings people into their life, and there's got to be a kind person who takes people out."
"That's what we do," Hutchinson admits. "We help deliver people to the right place. This job is something between me and the universe, that I just had to do. Just to see it in a different light, from the outside in, to participate in the evolution of life, but at the end. That's why it is important for me to look at the pictures and ask a few questions if I can. I tell people 'thank you' for being kind to us while we're in their homes. It's just really wonderful and weird. It's an intense relationship to have with strangers for such short moments.
"Every call that I get affects me in a different way. But, it inspires me to do more with my day. Interact with people more and live my life. I was already an adventurous person, but now I'm like, there is no excuse for sitting around complaining or whining. I was doing just that a couple months ago! Now I'm like, 'Whoo! Hey! Life is great!' This job inspires you to get off your butt and do things, because you're dealing with death every day. I mean, you don't even have to have a disease or be old to die. We have suicide calls--we have all kinds of people of all ages. We're dealing with death at all kinds of levels. It helps your perspective that a down day is not really all that bad.
"Sure, it's a bad day, but hopefully tomorrow will be better, if not it will be next week. I'm not saying I have to save the world or anything like that, or bring fresh water to China, but my days are more important than they were before. I'm still alive! You know?"
She pauses mindfully, then laughs hysterically.
"Hey, I'm not purging on anything!"