Bruce Goldfarb is a fun guy. When I initially reached out to him about coming to Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner he immediately replied with a joke. I think you have to have a sense of humor to work in a place that is mostly about death.
The first thing we saw when we got there were the Nutshells, who were at the Renwick last year. I was so excited to see them again. Bruce is kind of like the keeper of the Nutshells. In fact he’s so committed to the idea of them that he’s currently writing a book about the woman who created them, Frances Glessner Lee. It was her work that paved the way for forensic science. In fact, the Nutshells are still used today.
Members from various law enforcement agencies from all over the country travel to Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to take a homicide seminar at which these are used. I asked if I can drop in on that class and Bruce said maybe. I’m going to take him up on that.
On the wall near the Nutshells is something that didn’t make it to the Renwick. Mounted on the wall are rows of flesh colored models with holes on them. They are bullet holes meant to represent gunshot wound patterns, courtesy of Frances Glessner Lee. Bruce asks if I can tell if they are entry or exit wounds based on the hole. I say exit. I’m right. I quit my job to focus on bullet hole examination. Kidding.
We sit down in a conference room that is just like any conference room, oh except for the glass case filled with various examples of crime scene evidence.
Some of them are so old Bruce doesn’t even remember their origin story. There are even drugs. I ask if those are real. Bruce didn’t know.
We are told we can’t include everything we saw that day in this piece. Everything is an active case and we can’t do anything to compromise that. We saw a lot. As Bruce took us around the building I felt quite strongly that I had missed my calling.
We’re doing a true crime festival for a reason, because this stuff is fascinating. When I told Bruce about Death Becomes Us – A True Crime Festival (get those tix!), he laughed. There’s that sense of humor again.
Brightest Young Things: What is the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office function? What do you guys do, really?
Bruce Goldfarb: Well, this place is like a hospital, where the patients are dead and the doctors are figuring out why they died. Everybody dies. Most people, about 80% of people, die in hospitals or nursing homes. They have some illness, heart failure, old age, kidney failure, whatever it is. And then they die from it. So these people have been observed, they have been under the care of somebody. They have been monitoring their vital signs. There is a decline and then they die. It’s all witnessed and documented and so then the doctor signs a death certificate. The state issues certificates which contain a diagnosis, the cause of death.
Under other circumstances if somebody dies outdoors, under suspicious circumstances, if there is some question about the death we are required to investigate certain cases such as a sudden death of a minor, unexpected death during a medical procedure, any death that may be due to drugs or alcohol, any injury death, and so forth. So, that’s what we do, we substitute and we provide the diagnosis.
BYT: So when you say examine, that’s what you mean? Obviously, not the investigation which the police do. You’re examining the medical cause of a suspicious death?
BYT: Obviously you’re not out there solving crimes.
BG: Right, we’re not involved in the criminal justice system. We are a medical facility. So we do the medical. Anytime somebody dies, there are a number of investigations that go on. The police obviously do a criminal investigation. We do a medical investigation to determine the cause of death. There could be a fire department, with a fire investigation. There could be National Transportation Safety Board. There could be any number of different agencies but if you visualize the chalk outline around a body we’re only focused on what’s inside that chalk outline. So we’re focused on the body the police do not. That’s where the responsibilities begin and end.
BYT: What’s an odd job for the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office?
BG: There was planning for the inauguration in Washington. Nobody wants to do this so they send me because I’m an idiot, and you know, what can I do? I’m sitting there in a room and there’s the Secret Service, FBI, Homeland Security, and me. And I’m like why am I here?
BYT: Why would the inauguration need the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office?
BG: Because if something major were to have happened, and they do these exercises often. I’ve been on several of them. What are the capabilities? What can you do? How quickly? What’s your capacity? Those sorts of things.
BYT: And they would reach out to you folks in Baltimore, instead of someone in DC? They have a medical examiner’s office there
BG: They do because, if something were to happen it would overwhelm that facility.
BYT: So you’re the spillover facility.
BG: We’re just called mutual aid. It would have to be something so catastrophic, totally hypothetical. Of course nothing happened.
BYT: You mentioned a homicide seminar. What other educational classes are available here? What are people coming to learn? You said cops come. The homicide seminar sounds wildly interesting to me.
BG: Nothing on a regular basis. That’s the only thing we do regularly. There is training we have fellows who go through here. They’re doctors, they are pathologists. They’re being trained in forensic pathology. They do training for these guys, we have a forensic anthropologist here, so they do the forensic anthropology, toxicology, and all that stuff. But, that is just for the fellows. I got to sit in on a game workshop by the Baltimore Police, a blood spatter workshop, a forensic anthropology. The American Museum of Natural History once held a class here. The only regular class is the homicide seminar which is done by the Maryland Medical Legal Foundation.
BYT: How did you get involved in this career?
BG: I didn’t.
BYT: You’re not really here!
BG: I came here from journalism. I was in journalism for many years. But, in my first life when I was very very young, I started out as an EMT. I was a paramedic.
BG: No. I was in the West Memphis Fire Department for a while.
BYT: West Memphis, Tennessee?
Goldfarb: Yes. Arkansas, actually.
BG: That was after I was there but I know those people very well. I lived among them. It could of been me. They honestly thought I was the anti-christ.
BYT: Bruce! Way to bury the lede. West Memphis fourth…
BG: No kidding. I was doing that and I was a paramedic. At the time a lot of people were going to nursing school because there was no career ladder for paramedics. If you had the RN after your name, you could get a job in a hospital. So I did nursing school and absolutely hated it with a passion. I quit in my last semester. I came to Baltimore for the Shock Traumas program. I never worked in the field again because I started writing right around that same time.
BYT: Writing for who?
BG: In Memphis, it was just like community papers, and those sorts of things. When I moved up here I had a lot of time on my hands, I didn’t know anybody. I just had a couple lucky breaks. I did a piece for All Things Considered, national public radio, about the “visitor to the Poe grave?” I did a piece, the Washington Post at the time, had a wonderful thing in the Sunday paper, interviews with people. I interviewed a guy who lived in Pikesville, it was just amazing that he wanted to talk with me. Jacob Beser, he was the only crewman who was at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The only person who saw the atomic bomb used twice. This old Jewish guy, and he sat and talked with me. That was on the anniversary of the end of WWII.
BYT: So what was your beat?
Goldfarb: Medicine, I did a lot of science and medicine.
BYT: So you stuck with what you studied?
BG: I discovered that there was a demand for people who understood medical terminology, who could put together a sentence, halfway well. I could have a conversation with somebody about surgery, and able to communicate. I did work in a number of textbooks, it kept me busy. Up until a few years ago.
BYT: What did you do after you were writing about pharmaceuticals?
BG: It was horrible. I sort of drifted into…I was working for a custom publisher for a while.
BYT: You were staying in Baltimore the entire time?
BG: Yeah. I worked in Washington for a custom publisher. They did a lot of medical stuff. They hired me because they had a medical client, the American Diabetes Association, the Hemophilia Foundation, Lupus Foundation. Now I’m learning about bleeding disorders. I wrote for three years about Hemophilia and Lupus and Diabetes. But then, right around 2008 the bottom fell out and it was bad. I had a lot of experience writing for trade publications, newsletters, insurance companies, and those sorts of things. I absolutely hated it.
BYT: What about it?
BG: For one thing they are big corporations. These very elaborate euphemisms for case management, whatever they call it, utilization review. Basically what it meant was, finding a way to deny services to people. How to increase profits. I felt dirty. I hated that. Writing one of these publications for big corporations on how to make more money and it paid the bills but I was miserable. Fortunately, I was laid off.
BYT: So you didn’t have to make the hard choice?
BG: Yeah. I was ready to go back. There were absolutely no jobs at all. I was gonna go back to a medical setting. I was always very good with a needle and syringe. I could draw blood blindfolded.
BYT: As someone with small veins I appreciate you, Bruce.
BG: I don’t miss.
BYT: That’s also what we’re gonna do today! Bruce is going to successfully draw my blood on the first try.
BG: I was doing that. I actually got a job offer, and I was going to work for the VA medical center. I got this call out of the blue. There was this new thing, it’s called Patch.
BYT: Wow, you were on the Patch ground floor.
BG: I was, I was one of the founding members. It was awesome. I stayed there for about two years.
BYT: And then you found your way here. What has that been like?
BG: What I’ve been able to bring to the organization is so unbelievably gratifying. I fit like a key into a lock. When people contact this office, they are having the worst experience in their life. Everybody comes through here. Things are still raw. They’re angry, they’re grieving. I don’t know if you’ve experienced anything like this in your lives, and if you’re lucky you never will. They are really dealing with crisis. Sometimes they will say things and get mad, and like many people do they will respond unkindly. You can’t do that. You can’t start yelling with people. That’s when it gets sent to me.
BYT: You’re a de-escalator.
BG: Yes, the de-escalator. Among the many jobs that I had when I was in paramedic school, I worked in Psychiatry.
BYT: You have done everything!
BG: That’s the thing, the Chief picked up on that. I’m basically the crisis direction team. He sent me to training to brush up on that.
BYT: When people have to come here for their loved ones, and this is a somewhat morbid question… Do they have to identify their bodies?
BG: They don’t come in and identify.
BYT: That doesn’t really happen. That’s just in the movies? Let’s start separating fact from fiction.
BG: The police identify people. We don’t. It’s the responsibility of police by law.
BYT: Wow. I did not know that. I honestly thought that happened. This is something that used to happen? Or it is something that the movies made up?
BG: It’s just something the movies do.
BYT: MY MIND IS BLOWN RIGHT NOW.
BG: That’s in Maryland, by the way. What happens here, could be done differently elsewhere. Some places have a combined lab. There’s all kind of different practices. In Maryland, we do not.
BYT: That’s nice of Maryland not to make people do that. That sounds like a horrible thing to have to do.
BG: It is a horrible thing and we try to discourage it. We don’t let people do that. People want to come and see their loved one, we don’t allow it.
BYT: Even if they want to, you say no?
BG: Yeah, we don’t let them.
BYT: But legally you can say no.
BG: This is our building so we can deny access, even if there is somebody inside. This is not the place to do that. There will be a funeral. People are in and out of here in less than 24 hours. In by 9 out by 5. Why would you do it here? They could be at a funeral home, be comfortable, have chairs, grief counselors. You don’t wanna do that here. This is not the place for that.
BYT: The general public has become more interested in crimes and how they happen, and then the procedures. For example, that’s why we’re here – more or less.
BG: Several times a year, maybe once a month or so, I get an email from somebody who says “I’m a novelist writing a murder mystery can you help me?” And I say no.
Goldfarb: No, I don’t have time for that.
BYT: You’re not examining bodies on a daily basis, but does it ever get to you, being here? Because it’s very sad obviously.
BYT: Do you feel like it’s because you’re used to it? Or it’s just part of the job and you just can’t let that happen?
BG: It is part of the job and if you work in medicine you get exposed to unpleasant things. When I was an EMT in Memphis, they had a contract for what they called corpse/body removal with the City of Memphis. I picked up my first when I was 20/21 years old. Once you get over that, it’s just a person.
BG: There’s things like that in medicine. All around. When you’re an EMT you
BYT: To circle back to something you said a moment ago, why did you respond to our email?
BG: Oh, why not?
BYT: Well, you just said that you usually dismiss novelists, people that just want to come in and…
BG: Well she wasn’t asking for help on a book.
BYT: So, it’s just that?
BG: Why not? There is an upside to letting people understand what the Office of the Maryland Medical Examiner is and who we are and what we do. It generates goodwill. This place is not a mystery, it’s not weird or anything like that. If you wanted to talk about certain cases that go through this office, we wouldn’t. But, it’s just about what I hope, might end up being a somewhat positive story about this is a cool place and they do cool things here. If it interests people in finding out more, maybe thinking about forensic science, that’s fine.
BYT: What is the coolest thing you do on a given day?
BG: One is getting to know and getting to hang out with…I got friends all over the place. I’ve got FBI, just people that we get to know here. When they’re here they’re on sort of foreign territory. They’re on our terms, they can’t go anywhere in the building, we have to escort them. So, they let down their guard, and they’re relaxed and they’re like kids at an amusement park.
It’s really nice getting to know people as people, not as officers. It’s really nice, plus they tell great stories. I mean everybody’s got great stories. In terms of cool, and this is going to sound weird… the greatest pleasure I get is in the correspondence that I have with people. Some of the most meaningful writing that I’ve ever done in my life is only read by one or two people. I’ll do the chiefs letters, and somebody who’s upset, doesn’t understand their child’s suicide, or they think it’s something else. The chief, and people here in general, they have a way of being very direct and very clear. You know, your request is denied, period.
BYT: That’s a terrible thing to read.
BG: It is. He reads everything. I write for all the doctors. To be able to do something that has some heart to it, explains things, and expresses some compassion, but is still clear and direct – that to me… You don’t often get thank you notes here. But, I’ve gotten thank you notes. To be able to, for a state official, for a state agency, to respond with some compassion and understanding in hurt, means a lot to me. Some of these letters are really beautiful. I wish I could publish them but they are really…a lot of thought goes into them and it’s from the heart. Parent to parent. That to me gives me an awful lot of pleasure. I know that I’m taking the edge off for some people. You can’t make things whole again but, you know you can at least not sound like a computer print out.