Vol. 5 Num 662 Sat. April 08, 2006  
Front Page

Morgue In Mess
A butcher-shop for autopsies
DMCH Doms still use primitive tools

Though autopsy plays a key role in determining the cause of a death and the outcome of any lawsuit about it, the morgue at the country's largest public hospital is unbelievably ill equipped and lacking in facilities to do the job.

The Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) morgue has to carry out post-mortems on about 10 corpses a day with outdated, worn out equipment and inadequate facilities no better than a slaughterhouse's.

The 20 feet by 25 feet dissection room is less than one-fourth of the standard space it should have, says Dr Kamrul Hassan Sardar, assistant professor at the DMC forensic medicine department. The gallery from which the students observe how autopsies are done is also too small.

There is no air-conditioning either; an air conditioner is there, but it hardly works. For lack of space, its lone 8-drawer freezer for preserving corpses is kept in a corridor, and that too had been out of order for about eight months until it was fixed on April 1 on repeated requests, Dr Sardar laments.

In absence of a storage area, let alone an air-conditioned one, hundreds of plastic pots containing viscera are kept haphazardly on the floor beside the freezer in the corridor. People are passing by them all the while, making the evidence exposed to being stolen or lost, he points out.

Many of the bodies come here in terribly distorted and decomposed forms--people brutally murdered, hacked into pieces, severely battered in road mishaps, recovered from water after several days of murder or death. They have to be dumped anyhow in two storerooms no larger than 100sft each. One of the storerooms is used to keep the decomposed bodies and, in absence of air-conditioning, an unbearable stench always hangs in the air, permeating even the clothes, bodies and as if the very souls of the doctors and staffs who work at the morgue.

The drainage is poor, too. During the rainy reason, the bodies get literally flooded with water. While the Doms (those who handle dead bodies in morgue) have to handle the bodies withstanding all these macabre sights and condition, the forensic experts often cannot explain what exactly caused one's death, which is precisely the objective of an autopsy, due to the lack of modern and essential forensic equipment, confesses the doctor.

The scalpels, scissors and chisels now used for post-mortems were purchased back in 1997 and have to be sharpened on a daily basis to keep them fit for work.

Examining the insides of the skull is crucial to identifying the real cause of a death. But, since there is no electric saw, the Doms use chisels to cut open the skulls. He really needs a lot of luck to avoid fracturing the skulls while hammering the chisel. And if a skull does get fractured, it may lead the coroner to a conclusion different from the one he would make otherwise, notes Dr Fazlul Karim, a former DMCH forensic expert, now assistant professor at Comilla Medical College Hospital.

A standard morgue needs a chemical analysis lab; but the DMCH one has none. There is one in Mohakhali. So, the morgue has to send limbs of the bodies under post-mortem there, sometimes at the risk of spoiling the evidence, and wait for two weeks to as much as six months for the analysis reports, Dr Karim points out.

A mobile x-ray machine is yet another lack. It is specially needed to locate bullets or bomb splinters lodged in a body. In its absence, the Dom simply has to guess and cut open the parts where he reckons a bullet may lay hidden. It results in extra and unnecessary cuts in the bodies and also delays the autopsies.

A still or a video camera is another essential equipment the DMCH morgue lacks. A camera is a must to record the post-mortem operations, so that the forensic experts can check and recheck what exactly to write in the autopsy reports.

Though fingerprints of the bodies are supposed to be taken, the morgue has no technician or equipment for doing that.

A DNA lab has been set up at the morgue recently. But Dr Sardar does not believe it would be of any great use. Because, he points out, DNA tests are usually needed for examining rape cases or the likes, not for the multitude of other tests they have to conduct generally.

A poorly maintained refrigerator at Dhaka Medical College and Hospital morgue, left, and instruments used for autopsy. PHOTO: STAR