Cape Town – Working with dead people changes you.
The officers of the Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) see the most violent and traumatic deaths imaginable. In order to walk away at the end of the day, they have each developed their own coping mechanisms to deal with the horrors of the job.
Senior forensic officer Ashley Daniels arrived at FPS 23 years ago, when it still fell under the SAPS instead of the provincial health department. He was a police officer with the riot unit for four years, in the thick of extremely violent protests in his home area of Mitchells Plain.
Gangsters knew where he lived and they threatened his family. Some policemen in his unit were attacked and shot at, and others committed suicide because of the stress. Daniels wanted out, and applied for a transfer to the forensic pathology department.
“When I started here, it’s the total opposite to being on the frontline – getting to deal with people who say thank you for your service instead of people being like ‘you’re the enemy’,” he said.
“Here, there’s a different kind of stress. You see the results of the violence, especially if it’s kids. But after a while you become numb to it. Now it’s just like another job. I do my thing and go home.”
Maintaining the detachment between work and home is impossible when it’s your own family member on the table, though. A few years ago, Daniels’ brother-in-law went missing, and he reluctantly made the trip to the fridge to check the unknown bodies.
“I walked downstairs and I saw him there,” Daniels said. “He was already starting to decompose; he was changing colour. He was riddled with bullets in the face, all over the body. And then I had to break the news to the family.
“Only then it hit me – this is what a person feels like that’s losing somebody, that’s coming to the mortuary to identify somebody. It touched me in a way that I never knew it would.”
Learning how to detach from the traumatic nature of the work was also key for forensic officer Calvin Mesane, who joined the FPS 12 years ago.
“In the first year or so I battled because I couldn’t detach myself,” he said. “You need to draw the line.”
Mesane doesn’t discuss anything he sees at work with his family, and he tries to forget the details of his cases immediately. If you ask him about a death he saw yesterday, he will have to consult his files because he keeps no memory of the specifics.
“That’s my way of coping. There’s too much to see. If you have a look at a train crash, you basically have to walk a space of 50 to 70m picking up body pieces. You wouldn’t like to remember stuff like that.”
Without healthy coping mechanisms, some officers turn to alcohol to manage. Mesane said there was a free support service paid for by the Western Cape Health Department, but the stigma against seeking help prevents many from using it. Known as Icas, it offers free psychological counselling over the phone or in person, as well as legal and financial advice and assistance.
“There’s this tendency for men to be macho, and the minute you go to Icas people will think you’ve lost your marbles. So it’s difficult for the guys to seek help,” said Mesane.
Meanwhile, the volume and severity of the violence that the forensic officers see keeps getting worse – despite the army being deployed in some of the most violent areas.