In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. Yet as a nation, we seem to know far more about what happens with taxes than what happens when we die. Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust opened its doors to the department that few people see and dispels a few myths…
Through some very ordinary double doors lies a spacious, modern and light department that you would not guess was a mortuary. There is no weird atmosphere, no dark corners and definitely no scary sights. The staff here are cheerful, helpful and kind – there is no hint of doom or gloom but rather a friendly professionalism that instantly puts you at ease.
Manager for Mortuary & Bereavement Services Carla McCaffrey has worked for the Trust since 2006. With an avid interest in science, she started work in the histology lab, where samples of tissues are tested for various diseases. She has run the section since 2013 and she is certainly proud of the hospital’s facilities and the range of services her team offer.
She said: “The department provides support and guidance for the families of the deceased and informs them of every step of the process. We care for those who have passed away just as well as when they were alive.”
Blackpool Teaching hospital’s new mortuary was completed in 2011. All the relevant services are conveniently in one place – Bereavement Services, coroner’s officers and even a registrar. The state of the art department can store 121 bodies and can also accommodate bariatric patients. The post mortem room has three benches; there is a separate Home Office suite with viewing gallery which can also deal with post mortems on bodies with contagious diseases such as TB.
So what happens after a patient dies?
“Once a doctor has verified the death and the medical staff have contacted the next of kin, the body is dressed in a hospital gown and any personal items removed. The deceased is then taken to the mortuary by the porters. This is done as discreetly as possible with the deceased covered at all times. Four forms of identification are needed as a strict process is followed,” Carla explained.
The body will then be received into the mortuary and stored in a special refrigerator to slow down the decomposition process whilst all the paperwork is processed.
Carla continued: “Depending on how and when someone died will determine whether they will have a post mortem. If the cause of death is unknown, for example someone being found at home, the coroner will order a post mortem to be carried out. If the death is suspected to be of a criminal act, the Home Office will send their own pathologist to conduct a post mortem here.
“Crime scene investigators and police exhibit officers can often be involved too. The majority of post mortems in this country are carried out in the area’s hospital.”
If the family want to see the body in the hospital, there are two viewing rooms available and any personal effects are returned to the next of kin. An appointment can also be made with the registrar to register the death.
The department does all it can to accommodate relatives’ wishes regarding religious practices and are on hand to help with any part of the process.
Carla also oversees the four anatomical pathology technicians who will prepare a body for a viewing, making sure they are presentable for the family to see.
Carla said: “The technicians will brush the deceased’s hair for example and close their eyes if required. We keep everything as dignified as possible.”
The technicians also assist the pathologists in post mortems and reconstruction of the body, perform viewings and deal with relative’s wishes. The last part of their process is releasing the body to the undertaker who will take care of the body until burial or cremation. The updated entrance for the private ambulances is very private and discreet, keeping the removal of the body very dignified.
As in life, there are very strict processes and governance about the treatment of a deceased patient. Everything is documented and the department is licensed and inspected by the Human Tissue Authority. Being in the department, you really get a sense of professionalism and respectfulness.
Carla’s take on her job is a very positive one: “This is definitely the best job I have had. I love the variety, the different things we encounter, the pace of the work, the different teams we work with and I often love the quiet. I’m also really excited about the training links we are making with local universities to help train students studying relevant disciplines.”
The team like to enjoy a daily cup of coffee together to chat and let off some steam if needed. The job can be emotionally draining at times, so the staff make sure they process their feelings together and they have a strong bond in which to do so. They keep a good sense of humour that is much needed at times. The patients that they deal with really are in caring hands here.
And so how does Carla feel about her own death? “This type of work really changes your perspective. You have to live for the day. Because I know how well people are taken care of once they have passed away, I ‘m not afraid of dying.”