Thriller Thursday: Dead Body Walks Out On Autopsy

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I just finished reading Tess Gerritsen’s fantastic book, Vanish. Dr. Maura Isles is a Boston medical examiner swamped on a hot summer day. Before leaving the office, she hears something moving in the morgue. It can’t be, can it? But it was. A drowned woman mistaken for dead had come to life and was shuffling around in the body bag.

Can you IMAGINE?

Naturally, I was hooked. And then I got to thinking, is that really possible? Surely mistakes like aren’t made any more?

And then I remembered the case of the coffin lady. Remember her? Fagily Mukhametzyanov from Russia woke up in her coffin, surrounded by friends and family mourning her. She went into shock and died 12 minutes later in the hospital from a heart attack. She’d collapsed at home after having chest pains.

Seriously? Obviously she wasn’t embalmed. But how does she pass through various doctors and funeral services without being discovered? I realize their practices are different, but come on! Nobody heard the poor woman? Even if she wasn’t conscious, she was breathing.

Oh, there’s more. In 2009, an eighty-four year old Polish woman woke up in a morgue. She’d fallen unconscious at home, and a doctor pronounced her dead.

According to a police spokesman, a funeral company took the body to the morgue. Several hours later, a worker noticed the bag containing the body moving. The woman went to intensive care and survived.

And there’s even more. In 2010, a premature newborn declared dead in Mexico woke up inside her coffin. The parents heard a strange noise during the baby’s wake. When they opened the casket, the baby was crying and very much alive. The doctor was investigated for negligence.

In 2007, a Venezuelan man woke up in the morgue in excruciating pain because medical examiners had cut into his face. Carlos Cameio, 33, had been declared dead after an accident. His wife came to ID the body and found him moved to the hallway, alive.

A happy ending, at least.

It’s happening in the U.S., too. In 2005, Larry Green was hit by a car in North Carolina and declared dead. He was put into a body bag and sent to the morgue. The medical examiner didn’t notice he was alive until two and half hours later. Green is suing North Carolina Medical, claiming the mistake led to injuries from which he might not recover.

And in a suburb outside Boston, a young woman was found dead in her tub. Empty pill bottles were found beside her, so it was assumed her death was an accidental overdose. She woke up in the morgue a few hours later.

I wonder if this is where Gerritsen got the idea for Vanish? Takes place in Boston, the woman drowned, had barbiturates in her system, etc.

According to Jonathon Turley, Lexis-nexis shows there’s case after case of this happening. In Colorado, the ink on a boy’s death certificate hadn’t dried when they noticed he was moving. In Georgia, a man hit by a car spent the night in the morgue refigerator before someone heard him moving. In NYC, the pathologist was about to make his first cut when the corpse woke up and grabbed the doctor. Doctor keeled over, dead from a heart attack. Gerritsen mentions that one in Vanish, by the way.

I could list more cases, but you get the point. It sounds like the stuff of great horror stories, but these are real people going through this terror. How are mistakes like this made? According to Gerritsen’s character Dr. Maura Isles, people who are in very cold water can look dead and have an extremely slow heartbeat. Certain drugs can mask vital signs and make it difficult to hear a pulse.

Gerritsen is a doctor and was a practicing internist before leaving to write, so I assume she knows what she’s talking about.

But can that really explain all of these mistakes? In Vanish, Isles talks about caskets being dug up with claw marks. That’s not a fun fact Gerritsen made up. People have feared being buried alive for centuries. In the Civil War era, they installed “coffin alarms.” A bell was attached to the headstone with a chain leading down into the coffin to a ring on the finger of the deceased. If you woke up and found yourself stuck in a casket, you could pull on the chain.

I’d hate to be the graveyard caretaker and hear the bells ring.

In Vanish, Dr. Isles says that some casket makers sell coffins equipped with emergency transmitters. I couldn’t find any confirmation of that, but after reading case after case of mistaken death, I’m hoping they exist.

What do you guys think? Have you heard any plausible explanations for this?


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I have an explanation, but I did enjoy reading your account of the many cases. I am grateful it is more rare than not...and I hope never to have firsthand experience! MMF

Stacy said...

In this age of medicine, it's just mind boggling to me. Glad you enjoyed reading the post. Thanks for stopping by, Meagan!

Anonymous said...

A possible contributing factor: Who is declaring these folks dead?

In Texas (especially in rural ares) a Justice of the Peace can declare someone dead. Justices of the Peace are elected to office, but they are not required to have a medical license.

From Texas Counties 4U: (

"In counties that do not have a medical examiner or county coroner, a justice of the peace is required to rule on cause and manner of death on unattended deaths and must determine when an autopsy is necessary to find the cause. In this position, the justice of the peace works closely with law enforcement personnel who have the investigation authority."

You would think stuff like that wouldn't happen in this day and age, but, man, I've seen enough crazy to believe anything.

jamilajamison said...

Oh, this is fantastically creepy and so fascinating! I read Harvest, another of Tess Gerritsen's books, in a college-level sociology class, and loved her ability to weave her medical knowledge into the murder mystery.

I haven't heard much about these, er, misdiagnoses outside of episodes of CSI, but your mention of Civil War era coffin alarms reminds me of Mary Higgins Clark's book, Moonlight Becomes You, where the theme of being buried alive is pivotal to the plot.

Annie Boreson said...

I love these stories, but much like Meagan, I don't want to be a firsthand account. I once read that in old England they dug up a graveyard to transport the bodies to another site and found claw marks inside some of the caskets. Supposedly that is how the term graveyard shift got its start so that those on the night shift could listen for the bells that were attached to the corpse finger. If the bell didn't ring after a few days, the deceased was known as (drum roll please!) a "dead ringer." Or so I heard...

Stacy said...

A JP can declare someone dead? I had no idea! I wonder if that's a state thing, because I'm pretty sure it has to be a doctor here. And docs had done so in all of those cases I listed. You're right, there's enough crazy in this world that anything is possible.

I really liked Vanish. I wasn't sure with the medical end, but I'm going to read more of her books. I liked Dr. Isles. She does a great job of working in the medical stuff without making it boring.

I read that Higgins Clark book as well. That theme is very pivotal. And Edgar Allen Poe had a huge fear of being buried alive, and there's always been stories that he actually was because he died of alcohol related causes.

Thanks, guys!

Stacy said...

Lol, me either. That doesn't surprise me about England. I've heard stories of that in other places, too. Now I hadn't heard that about graveyard shift getting its start because of the bells, but that makes sense. What a yucky job!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you wrote on this topic just now. I spent a couple days last week researching this very type of thing and came across many of the same stories you mention. Very cool Stacy.

Stacy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stacy said...

LOL, great (and dark) minds think alike. It's amazing how much it's happened. You should totally read Vanish, then.

Thanks for commenting!

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