When the pain is too great, when it all is just too much, the doctors prescribe morphine. It is an interesting substance — this derivative from opium. In the early 1800s, a German pharmacist named the drug morphine after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. No doubt, dreams are what morphine brings — dreams of a better time. But, in the here and now, morphine cuts the pain down a notch. It pushes on the hurt just enough that there is a small gap to take a ragged breath. It allows an eye to open, look warily around and see that you are not alone.
In the bowels of Broadlawns Medical Center, tucked away from everyone but the curious, sits the small institutional office of the Polk County Medical Examiner, Doctor Gregory Schmunk. Elfish in appearance, with kind eyes, shaved head and a white goatee that blends into his pale face, he smiles warmly in greeting. As you sit with him, he appears to be searching for the humor that lies hidden in the conversation. You know he has found it when his mouth broadens up and the outside corners of his eyes drop. Something has tickled his fancy. You don’t know what exactly, but he’s found it. Yikes. He seems inordinately chipper for a man elbow-deep in the dead.
Don’t get me wrong, he is a serious man, for sure. Forensic pathologist. Board-certified in anatomic pathology. President of the National Association of Medical Examiners. He’s performed a gazillion autopsies over his long career and testified in a multitude of high-flying criminal cases. He has seen controversy and relative calm — with himself at the center of both. Oh, and by the way, he looks death in the eye daily.
“I started out as a pediatrician. I wanted to take care of kids,” he said.
No kidding. But Dr. Schmunk loved the lab and loved the science. He was soon courted away by the University of California at San Diego to do edgy research. Pathology appeared to be a perfect fit. Before long he was doing a fellowship in the Seattle Medical Examiner’s Office, and the future Polk County Medical Examiner was off and running.
With his love of science, numbers and puzzle solving, it is easy to stereotype Dr. Schmunk as a man who exists only in his head. Come on, it’s hard not to notice the items hanging from around his neck — yes, those appear to be pens-on-a-chain. What more need be said?
But make no mistake, Dr. Schmunk is not solely about the science and mystery of the dead body on the table. Early in his career, he was brought in as the medical examiner in a high-profile multiple hostage/murder case. After the autopsy of one of the bad guys, he went to the area reserved for family and loved ones. The bad guy, by no means a respectable man, had about 30 family members waiting to hear from the doctor. Dr. Schmunk was shocked.
“Even though there are bad people, there’s probably going to be someone who loves them. My job at a minimum is to offer the family closure. I can do that,” he said.
And he does.
But what about the sadness? Isn’t it overwhelming?
“I have a hard time with children and young women. Recently I had to autopsy two young women. Both were pregnant. That’s bad,” he said.
However, Dr. Schmunk, a deeply religious man, has a simple philosophy about the dead bodies on the table:
“They’re no longer home,” he said.
And, to correct any misunderstanding, he adds, “Listen, this is not about the people on my table… This is about the survivors.”
The autopsy room is “very much a respectful place.” Dr. Schmunk frequently plays music while he works. And, not infrequently, he is asked by the family of the loved ones to play special songs during autopsies — songs of significance to the dead. He gladly does.
Which gets us to the morphine. A baby died — a great tragedy by any measure. Dr. Schmunk needed to perform the autopsy. The young mother was afraid that the procedure would cause pain to her dead baby.
Pain to her dead baby? Crazy, right? But who are we to question the logic of a grieving mother? The solution was obvious to Dr. Schmunk. He obtained a prescription of morphine. Before the autopsy, he administered morphine to the dead baby. And what did this do for anyone, you might ask. Well, nothing for the dead baby. Remember, no one is home. But the young mom? The young mom was able to push the hurt aside just long enough to take a ragged breath, to open an eye and to see Dr. Schmunk by her side. She felt less pain.
Morphine dreams. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.