by: Kyle Thompson
As I took my first steps up the stairway to the bright blue front door, the first thing that caught my attention was the odor. An overwhelming, sickening smell I couldn’t quite put my finger on. One that made me hold my breath and turn back to the truck to swap my N-95 mask out for my respirator.
Approaching the door for a second time, I was preparing myself for what could be on the other side. It wasn’t a total surprise... I knew what waited for me was the unattended death of a 78-year-old man who hadn’t been discovered for nearly three and a half months. No family, no friends, only an unbearable stench drifting from the home that alerted a mailman to his tragic demise. I knew he had died of a heart attack. I knew the body, or what was left of it, was taken by the coroner. I knew I had a mess to clean up. What I didn’t know, was how it would affect me.
I work as a biohazard technician. Proper terminology for something that means little more than someone who cleans up nasty messes. “Anything that requires a hazmat suit” is what I usually tell people. Whether it be the aftermath of a homicide/suicide, chemical spill, hoarding situation, infectious disease decontamination, or in this case: unattended death. This wasn’t going to be the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed; however, it stands out to me because this was my first job on such a scene. At the time, our company was only a few months old, and up until this point we had only been introduced to the hoarding side of business. To put things bluntly, I didn’t know what to expect, and I wasn’t ready.
I opened the door and peered inside, this time protected from any and all smells. Aside from an abundance of flies and dust, nothing seemed out of place. It was a normal home, which was a welcomed surprise to our crew who had been thrust head first into the bizarre world of hoarding. It wasn’t until we made our way into the master bedroom that we found what we were looking for. A human shaped silhouette, made entirely from decomposed bodily fluids, saturated the carpet floor...I was horrified. I’d never seen anything like this in my life, and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to process it.
There was an immediate sense of sadness and reverence that took over as I set out to do my job. The joking went away, and honestly so did the talking. We worked in complete silence other than the occasional question or directive. My coworker started disinfecting the area with numerous chemical sprays to make things as safe as possible. We followed up by removing the infected carpet, carpet padding, and subfloor.
To our surprise that wasn’t the end of it. He had leaked through the floor. We followed the fluid through the subfloor and basement ceiling into a bathroom directly underneath. As my crew disinfected and sealed the joists upstairs, I made my way to the basement to check the extent of the damage. It was clear that drywall and ceiling would have to be removed which was permeated with the same contaminants. We did our jobs and about 6-7 hours later we were finished.
That was the end of it for us. At least it should have been. A paragraph that took me fifteen minutes to write took over six hours to complete in real time, and weeks to process.
My first “real” biohazard scene. Exactly what I had been waiting and training for ever since I started the job. I viewed it as a way to prove myself. Prove myself to my coworkers and prove my abilities to myself. Fresh off the heels of graduating from the fire academy I wanted nothing more than to show everyone what a badass I was (or thought I was).
I’ve always enjoyed being able to do things other people can’t or won’t. A toxic trait, I’m sure, but it’s where I find a lot of my motivation comes from. This was no exception; I wanted to prove myself. Little did I know at the time, this would be one of the most humbling experiences of my life. In my selfishness I had overlooked the true reason I chose this profession: to help others. I had tried to turn someone else’s tragic situation into something I could benefit from.
In a sense, I did benefit from it; however, not in the way I had expected.
I’m working on a lot of things in my life; and unfortunately for me, I’m the type of person who needs life experience to teach him a lesson, not words. This experience has brought many lessons, none of which I necessarily wanted, but all of which I desperately needed and am still reinforcing. It taught me that life is fragile; your health can be here today and gone tomorrow. It taught me the importance of friends and family; to be fortunate enough to have people around me that love and care for me, that check in on me. It taught me to do the same for others, even when it may be inconvenient.
It taught me to approach problems differently; if I look at things from a birds-eye-view, I tend to get overwhelmed. Like my first unattended death scene, I am often just as lost and overwhelmed in life. It taught me to approach chaos with a “one step at a time” mentality. That is what allows me to function and survive. There is no formula for success and there is no predicting what life will throw at you; for me, in order to succeed, I must remain willing to learn, feel, and reciprocate.
All in all, this experience certainly did not teach me what I wanted and expected, but it is for this exact reason that I am most grateful to have experienced it.
Kyle Thompson is a Biohazard Remediation Technician who works for USA Bio Care. Aside from his work he is passionate about the outdoors, and connecting with others over the natural world we live in. Hunting, fishing, camping, and rock climbing are a few of the ways Kyle likes to keep busy, when the weather permits. However, he is just as content to sit down with a craft beer or a joint for a quality Call of Duty session. While all of life may not be desirable, Kyle tries to look for purpose in every situation and finds two of the things that give him purpose are helping other people and learning new skills.