Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Chink In The Armor

Looking back on my previous posts, I note that I have not discussed my work in much detail. I’m not avoiding discussing my work. It’s just that, most of the time, there are much more interesting and amusing topics I’d rather write about. At least to me anyway. And my work is depressing sometimes. Like today.

In case I haven’t mentioned it previously, I am gainfully employed as a commercial liability claims adjuster for a top 10 property and casualty insurance company. My work involves handling complex, high exposure and litigated cases. I’ve been in the insurance business for almost 20 years now of which I’ve spent the last 15 years handling claims. The majority of that time has been spent in the commercial liability world; however, I’ve also handled what is called “non-standard personal auto”.

There’s not much difference between a commercial insured and a personal insured when it comes to claims. Businesses find creative ways to screw up and have accidents just like normal folks mainly because businesses employ normal folks like you and me. The main difference is in the amount of money involved. A typical personal auto policy in Texas has $25,000/$50,000 limits while a commercial policy generally has at least $500,000 and usually $1,000,000 in limits.

When people ask what an adjuster does, I usually tell them we are professional janitors who clean up other peoples’ messes. We are somewhat akin to police officers, fire fighters and EMS personnel in that we see the aftermath of a whole lot of disaster, and we tend to develop a jaded outlook on things to keep from going slightly mad. It takes a special kind of insanity to come back from lunch, open up your mail to find gruesome photos of someone’s head crushed, and then chat with your wife about what’s for dinner. We also tend to have a different reaction than most people to seeing accidents on the side of the road. Instead of feeling sorry for the accident victims…adjusters wonder who they’re insured with and whether we’re going to have to handle the claim. As you might imagine, adjusters tend to be a warped bunch of individuals generally speaking.

That’s not to say we are completely without feelings and sympathy. We see so much pain, suffering, heartache, lying, cheating and outright fraud, that it’s hard to get through the armor.

Today, something found a small chink in my armor.

I was reviewing a file involving a 4 year old drowning victim. A young girl whose life was cut short before it really even got started. The file contains a copy of her autopsy report. Autopsies are, in some ways, the final snapshot of a life (and death) in cold, hard, clinical detail.

This young girl’s autopsy tells a story like many others I’ve seen, but this story included chapters that struck me for reasons I’m still puzzling over.

“Evidence of Treatment” reads one such chapter. This young girl was underwater for an unknown amount of time but long enough to drown, stop breathing and cause irreparable brain damage. That’s not to say that efforts were not made to save her. She was revived for a time following her rescue from the shallow pool in which she met her fate. She was cared for in a hospital for a short time until it was clear that her brain had ceased being able to function without assistance. The medical examiner carefully noted the paraphernalia of treatment: the catheter, the tracheotomy tube, etc.

“Evidence of Organ Harvesting” reads another chapter. As gruesome as it sounds for the organs of a young girl to be harvested like a field of grain, this to me is actually the part of the story with hope. This young girl will be able to live on, at least in some small part, by helping others to live through the gift of her heart, kidneys and part of her spleen. She may not have been old enough to consciously make the decision to donate her organs and probably wasn’t even old enough to understand what it meant, but those who received her gifts will have the chance to know her generosity.

Autopsies do not accompany every death. They are normally reserved for unnatural deaths which are the only ones I generally see in my work. The medical examiners are thorough, professional and dryly clinical in their reporting, but no detail escapes notice or report. I have read mention of one accident fatality whose penis was tattooed to resemble a candy cane with alternating red and white strips. To this day, I am convinced he was a child molester although I have no way to prove it for sure.

Your every body part (internal and external), personal grooming habits, tattoos, piercings, body modifications, surgeries, breast augmentation, face lifts, tummy tucks, and more are all measured, commented and recorded for posterity to tell a story to someone or several someones investigating an untimely demise.

None of the stories are particularly pleasant given their subject matter.

All of them represent a once living and breathing human being who loved and/or was loved.

It’s sometimes hard for me to remember that simple fact given the amount of garbage I wade through day in and day out, but this little girl managed to find a way through her autopsy to remind me. Perhaps it was her final gift to a stranger she never met in life.


  1. Awww, K. - I know that burden. Not the burden of reading a child's autopsy like a text, but the burden of being in the loop of adults involved in the death or aftermath. We had a child drowning just today at our ER. Luckily, I was out today (Hubby is having medical problems), but being a small know. Just a month ago we had a toddler who had been run over. A month prior to that, a fatal house fire. All I can say is: Love your family. If you have kids, hug them. If you love someone, tell them. You and I see how fleeting life can be.

  2. Mel, I knew I forgot to include other kindred spirits. Of course, ER nurses and docs see the same kind of stuff in much more immediate ways. You are absolutely right that life is fleeting. We get one ticket to ride this merry-go-round. We need to make sure we enjoy the ride as much as possible and share the joy with as many as we can.


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