First Call

It was early evening when we got the call. The air was crisp and cold. There were patches of black ice on the roads that threatened a tire slip and mounds of dirty snow were piled high on the sides of the streets. The man we were going to pick up was found dead in his apartment on the second floor of the building. It was an older complex which could mean a challenge with stairs, narrow hallways and small door openings. I explained the possible challenges that we might face to my partner who had never been on a transport call before, this would be his first time out. We pulled the van up to the gate that entered the complex, the deceased man’s mother greeted us bundled in her coat, seemingly calm as she described where we should park. The procedure I had in place was for one person to enter the space, speak with the family and assess the situation, then retrieve the second person, our medical cot and any supplies we may need. I took the lead since my partner was new.

As the mother of the deceased and I walked up to the apartment we were greeted by a man who was standing guard to the doorway we would enter. I shook his hand and introduced myself. He was a family friend, there in support of the grieving mother. The mother seemingly unperturbed by the fact that her son was dead and his body was on the other side of the apartment door tried to rush in opening it to whisk me inside, but I had to slow her down. Many people in a state of shock like this can get comfort from talking and seeing that I am genuinely concerned for them and more interested in the person than just doing the job. I grasped her hand and asked her who found her son and what had happened?  I was trying to get a sense of the situation. She was uninterested in chatting though, she quickly told me that she had found her son, that she had come over to his apartment to check on him because she hadn’t heard from him in several days and he had only just moved to this new place. She then proceeded to take me inside. As she opened the door, the air inside was ripe with the scent of advanced decomposition, acidic and eye watering. The door opened into a living room that was filled with piled boxes unopened and labeled with what was contained in each one, clothes, books, dishes. On the other side of the high mounds of boxes was a modest kitchen with similar boxes scattered along the counter tops in various stages of being unpacked. The sink contained used dishes with crumbs of a meal scattered on a plate, a crusting of milk at the bottom of a glass. We made a right at the kitchen and started down a narrow hallway closer to the acrid smell.

The first thing I saw was a black and bloated leg hanging off the edge of a mattress which was sitting on the floor with no frame. As we entered the room the rest of his body was in the same state, he was big, dark, bloated and covered in blisters, meaning skin slip (skin slip occurs when the top layer of skin detaches and easily bursts and sloughs off when touched). He was lying on the mattress on his back. I turned to the mother and rushed her out of the room, I felt that she had probably seen enough already. To protect her from further trauma I asked her and the friend to wait outside while I retrieved my partner and got to work. As I had surmised, there was no elevator, only concrete and metal stairs with tight turns down to the icy parking lot. I was a little worried since this was my partners first transport and one never knows how a person might react to the horror waiting upstairs so I bluntly told him, “this is almost the worst of the worst scenario for your first call”. I walked through how we would be handling this situation but internally prepared myself to call for back-up if it proved too much for the new guy. We hand carried the cot up the steps, taking note of the conditions because this would also be our way down, only on the way down the cot would be laden with the weight of the dead man.

We were able to fit the cot just inside the front door of the apartment with the ability to close it for privacy. First we lowered the cot as far to the ground as it would go. Since this transport would require the man be slid down the hallway from his bedroom, once we reached the living room, it would be easier to maneuver him onto the cot with it closer to the ground. My partner and I then dawned our gloves and retrieved a “body bag” (this is an enclosed plastic bag that would zip up to contain any fluids and make for easier transport), at least that is what it said on the package. We then made our way down the hallway to the bedroom. As we entered the room, I kept an eye on my partner for signs of running away or throwing up, both situations have happened more times than I can count. I watched him look at the man. The man’s skin was dark and he was bloated, his facial features were unrecognizable due to the swelling. Almost every surface of his skin was covered in blisters the size of teacup saucers just ready to burst and slip off. Just think of a time that you have burnt yourself on the stove or curling iron but much, much worse.

On the floor of the bedroom were piles of clothing and bedding, like the man had been sorting his laundry before he died. Gratefully, partner proved himself capable in keeping his lunch to this point. He asked me what we needed to do and as I instructed, he did what needed to be done. It turned out the “body bag” was actually just a sheet of plastic that could be folded over a person and sealed with sticky tape! Ugh, “Okay we can make this work” I thought in my head. We rolled the man slowly onto one side, this task was made difficult by the blisters bursting with every touch making his skin slippery and almost impossible to hold on to. We pushed a clean linen sheet and the sheet of plastic and a white canvas tarp with black handles underneath him. Then rolled him to his other side and pulled the materials out so that it was completely underneath him.  It was messy and smelly and not very dignified but at the end of it all we had wrapped the man in our materials successfully. Now, the only plausible way to get him from the bed to the gurney was to pull the straps of the canvas, slide him off of the bed and down the hallway. As we pulled, the man proved large enough that as we made our way the plastic sheeting and the man’s limbs slipped and bumped the doorways. By the time we got him to the living room he had left behind a trail of liquid and sloughed skin, there was no other way around this without a proper body bag. All we had to do now was slightly lift the man’s torso onto the cot and slide him into position. Everything worked like a charm until the last few inches when suddenly, he got stuck! We pulled and pulled but he would not slide any further and his feet were still dangling off the end of the gurney! We strained and pulled and pushed without making any headway. I had no idea what was happening so we stopped to take a break, both of us red faced and sweating from the strain. My partner had the idea that the end strap of the tarp was stuck on the end of the cot and, he was right. We released the strap and thankfully slid the man the rest of the way onto the cot. We secured him with the cot straps, covered him completely with the sheet and then placed our cot cover over everything. We did it! We made it this far with few mishaps. We wiped up the mess down the hallway and covered the mattress with the bedding as best we could to protect the mother from having to see the huge soiled stain her son had left there.

We walked outside where the mother and the friend were waiting for us. I walked back into the apartment with the mother and we talked about what would happen next and how the mess would get cleaned up. I gave her instructions on who to call and who could help her. She gave me a hug and then my partner and I prepared for the decent down the stairs to our van. I asked the friend if he would be willing to help us with this part and thankfully, he agreed. One set of wheels at a time we stepped the gurney down the treacherous concrete stairs and ultimately into the van waiting in the parking lot. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fast but it was as dignified as we could make it. We said goodbye to the mother and her friend and pulled away, thankful that we did our job as dignified as possible in such a sad situation.

My partner was my husband, and this was our first transport together after opening our business Tolman Trade Services (TTS).


  1. My Removal Service had a minimum of two heavy-duty Body-bags in every vehicle. Always. In addition, each vehicle always carried a “drag-sheet” – a homemade device made of plastic tarp material and rope handles, purpose-designed to drag bodies out of confines too narrow to accept a cot. My company wasn’t perfect, but we did have a fair sense of what we were doing.

    1. Yep. We hadn’t received all of our supplies before our first call. We are now well equipped and prepared for any scenario! Thank you for your comments.

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