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?