By Rena Patel ’19
Dr. Abhay Joshi thought that nothing would surprise him after he completed his plastic surgery residency. He’d seen everything from teenage nose jobs to severe facial reconstruction and was perfectly content with leaving the more exciting, albeit more stressful, aspects of reconstructive surgery behind in his twenties. In exchange for keeping Zurich’s wealthiest more inhumanely beautiful with each new Botox injection and face-lift, he grew used to the predictable yet comfortable lifestyle he desired. So, it was quite the surprise for him to be called into the hospital on a late Friday night, long after he’d completed his last rhinoplasty, even more so when an attendant dressed in green scrubs much like his own directed him to the morgue in the hospital basement.
“I should’ve brought a jacket,” he muttered, breathing through his mouth as he tried to acclimate himself to the stench of death and chemical preservatives.
He spared a quick glance around the room before heading to the autopsy room. Morgues seemed to be pretty much the same wherever you went; like banks but instead of money behind the vaults, they held empty shells without meaning.
The smell, fortunately, was much less potent in the autopsy room, however it did nothing to compensate for the cold. His normally dark skin seemed to pale beneath the stark artificial white light to the point where he swore he could see the blue of his veins and the twitch of a pulse in his hand.
“Dr. Joshi, thank you for coming.”
He looked up to find a woman with dark hair and piercing eyes flanked by a thin man with blonde hair and grey eyes and a small woman with long dark hair and prominent eyebrows. All three were dressed in matching dark grey scrubs.
“Physicians in my line of work don’t normally have the privilege of visiting the morgue, so I’m curious. To what do I owe the pleasure Miss—”
“Doctor. My name is Dr. Thana Ward,” she said sharply. “I am the head forensic pathologist here. This is my assistant Kamla Anpu and resident Noah Clay.”
“Pleasure, I’m sure. Why am I needed down here?”
“You’re not,” Dr. Ward rolled her eyes and came forward, “We’re perfectly capable of carrying out the procedure during evisceration but the man who owns him didn’t think we were capable of separating the skin completely. Regardless, the process is going to be a long one so we may need assistance.”
“It’s better if we showed you,” Dr. Ward replied, taking the sheet off the body on the slab.
An elderly man lay prone on the autopsy table with his arms on his sides and his head facing the wall opposite to them. His back was completely covered with the most elaborate tattoo Dr. Joshi had ever seen. The image of a Madonna, crowned with a Mexican-style skull graced the center of his back, along the spine. Gold rays emitting from her crown, covered his back and was contained by a border of red and blue roses along his shoulders. The bottom of the piece was closed off with two children riding ornate Chinese koi fish and lotus flowers. It must have been a beautiful piece of art when he first got it and although it was obvious that he had gotten many touch ups throughout the years, the age of the subject and the artwork was still apparent.
“This is Tim Steiner, eighty-seven years old, died from what we suspect to be pulmonary heart disease earlier this evening,” she explained. “At the age of thirty, he lent the skin on his back to a tattoo artist who then sold his work to German art dealer, Herr Rik Reinking, for a whopping 150,000 euros. Your job is to skin this guy’s back in one piece. There must be no damage to the artwork. Those are your instructions.”
“Down to the hypodermis?”
Dr. Ward nodded.
“In one piece? That kind of precision would take hours. Why can’t we wait until tomorrow morning?”
“Because man who owns that piece is concerned about decay and wants it off the body as soon as possible,” she replied stiffly. “Herr Reinking did not want us to perform the procedure, but frankly it is late and I would like to go home before the sun rises so Fräulein Anpu and I will assist you, but we need to get started now.”
Twenty minutes later, scalpels were drawn, incisions were made, and the two of them had quietly begun the arduous task of separating the layers of skin from the muscle and fat beneath. Dr. Joshi glanced up occasionally at Dr. Ward, who was, to his utter amazement, humming as she made quick work of her scalpel.
“Did you know he got this tattoo for free?” Dr. Ward asked.
“I did not.”
“He got a free Wim Delvoye tattoo under the condition that he exhibit the work a minimum of three times a year.”
“Mhmm,” Dr. Ward nodded, eyes narrowing as she reached the left shoulder blade. “He’d probably visited at least a hundred major cities to just sit on a box all day: London, Rome, New York, Chicago, Hamburg, Beijing, Paris. He was an exhibit in the Louvre! Can you believe that? How many people do you think could say that they were an exhibit in the Louvre?”
“Not many, I suppose,” Dr. Joshi replied, focusing his gaze back to a particular spot near the waist that was giving him trouble.
“He certainly seemed to live his life to the fullest, visiting all those cities, meeting so many people, and now he’ll be immortalized. A part of him will live on for who knows how long. A piece of his existence will continue to inspire awe in the people that see his back. That, to me, seems like a life well spent.”
“To be remembered for doing nothing?”
Dr. Ward shrugged, “Lots of people are remembered for not doing anything. Lots of people who’ve done great things aren’t remembered. It’s the luck of the draw I suppose, but Tim’s got it figured out. He’ll be remembered as long as he’s exhibited, and since there’s only one of his kind, I’m sure he won’t be forgotten anytime soon.”
“Do you think he knew,” asked Dr. Joshi, “that this is how he’ll be remembered?”
“I don’t think anyone knows who tells your story, but they can certainly give those that decide some favorable options.”
Dr. Joshi looked down at the fat he was separating from the skin on the late Tim Steiner’s sides and wondered what people would remember him by, if they would remember him at all. Whatever the case was, he was starting to think he wouldn’t like is legacy to consist of just rhinoplasties and Botox injections.
The sun was rising in the east when the skin was finally completely separated from its previous owner. As Dr. Ward began setting up for the autopsy, Dr. Joshi stayed to help clean the area. And for the first time since his third year of medical school, Dr. Abhay Joshi assisted in performing an autopsy.