The pandemic journey of a Queens woman laughing in the face of death

At a bar in Astoria on a recent weeknight, comedian Lauryn Petrie bet the audience that their pandemic was boring compared to hers.

Instead of baking sourdough and eating Netflix, she was cutting up dead people. A sigh, then Petrie, 38, explains.

When COVID-19 arrived, his dreams of touring the country doing stand-up comedy were put on hold as venues closed and live shows came to a halt.

She spent more than a year working as a mortuary technician, from April 2020 to June 2021, despite having no experience in the field. She emerged with bloody fangs, a deep knowledge of human anatomy, and a changed perspective on the world of the living. And his morbid sense of humor remained intact.

She sought work to avoid being homeless again, as she was in the mid-2000s, and to continue the upward trajectory she began after hitting “bottom down” in 2019, when She was in what she described as an abusive relationship and lived in a windowless room in a bedbug-infested Bushwick apartment.

“There are people dying everywhere. I bet they need help,” Petrie recalled thinking to herself. “I thought you didn’t need a degree to put bodies in refrigerated trucks.”

You don’t.

Petrie first worked at Kings County Hospital transporting bodies to cold storage. It reminded her of a podcast she was working on about conspiracy theories and how some listeners thought COVID was a hoax. It has never been more real to her.

“There was a time when I was in intensive care, literally waiting for people to die, with the stretcher and the bag, because they needed that room for other patients,” Petrie said. Sometimes bags broke and bodies fell.

When she handled a particularly bloody bag, thinking it was a homicide and not a death from COVID, she sensed a change of mood: “New York is coming back! People are leaving their homes again!

Dedicated to craftsmanship

After three months, she started working for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), which handles ‘mass fatalities’ and was staffed in the wake of the pandemic to handle the surge in cases. . Even though not all COVID deaths necessarily required autopsies, the office does have to deal with unclaimed bodies.

Petrie initially spent about a month stationed at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, where bodies were stored in long-term refrigerated trailers until families could afford funerals.

When she started working in the OCME office in Manhattan, she had to retrieve bodies from death scenes. She learned, for example, how to drag a tall man out of a bathtub so as not to damage the body. But the most engaging part came in mid-August, when she started helping doctors perform autopsies.

“I was super excited because I thought maybe comedy would never come back. Maybe I’ll have to do this for the rest of my life,” she said. is like a whole new start for me, so I take it very seriously.”

She bought clinical scrubs and a medical cap with Beetlejuice on it. She covered herself in a gown and two pairs of gloves, stretched a hairnet over her head, put on a mask and put on a face shield.

Petrie in the morgue.
Courtesy of Lauryn Petrie

The first autopsy she observed was a stab wound. When the colleague she was following turned the body over, Petrie was struck by how blood flowed from the wounds, a sight she said was “awful, but so cool”.

She found she enjoyed working in the autopsy room because it required technique and improvement. She pressured herself to be specific, even doing additional research at the end of her shift.

The doctor taught her how to make a Y incision on the body, a task that turned out to be easier than she had expected.

“The only thing you have to be careful of is when you go to the stomach, you don’t want to go too hard and puncture the intestines,” she said. “You go around the navel.”

The hardest part, she said, was working at the speed set by the doctors, which she compared to that of a restaurant. She would have to remove the organs and expose the brain for the doctor to examine.

“I get more nervous doing comedy than I ever did doing autopsies,” she said, ticking off her worries about getting high profile bookings and dealing with the syndrome. the impostor. “This stuff bothers me more than cutting up dead people.”

With children in particular, Petrie took particular care to make perfect cuts, and her work drew compliments from doctors.

“I was very proud, artistically, that my haircuts looked good, keeping them low below the ears so that when their hair was down, you could never even see they were cut,” she said. declared.

Doing autopsies required balancing respect and irreverence, and she found her dark humor mirrored by some doctors. She was watching the news to get a glimpse of her work the next day.

While stomachs could turn at the mere thought of guts and gore, working in the morgue was a full sensory experience and Petrie was prepared for it, approaching death with fascination instead of repulsion.

“It’s just human butchery,” she said. “I’ve been looking at crime scene photos for fun all my life, so none of this has touched me.”

Petrie took the fingerprints by putting her hand in the glove of skin that detached from the body. She got used to the horrible smell of “decomposition” – morgue parlance for decomposing bodies – which reminded her of rotting meat. She had come home to find dried blood splattered on her neck from days of helping with autopsies.

“It makes you respect life more”

What got her thinking were the many deaths she noticed that were due to drug overdoses, which have increased dramatically during the pandemic.

The city has had the highest number of accidental drug overdose deaths on record between 2020 and 2021, the OCME’s acting chief medical examiner Dr. Jason Graham said last week during a hearing on the city council’s budget. Fentanyl is the “most common drug implicated in overdose deaths”, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Petrie had overcome her own drug addiction and she had overdosed in the past. When she worked on overdose cases, she thought about how it could have been her.

Even as the months passed and the work became mundane, Petrie couldn’t help but keep individual stories. This is what kept her from feeling numb every day.

She paid attention to the tattoos she had to cut out during an autopsy. Sometimes she remembered the names of the dead and searched for their social media accounts. When she pulled the bodies out of the apartments, she noticed family photos, decorations, and if the bed was made.

Patrons watch a comedy show at McLoughlin's Bar in Astoria, March 16, 2022.

Patrons watch a comedy show at McLoughlin’s Bar in Astoria, March 16, 2022.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“It’s interesting how life has just come to a halt,” she says. “I want to see what their life was like before it came to an abrupt end. It could be anyone.

Outside of work, she had started a relationship with the person she would later marry. She wondered if any of the bodies on her autopsy table had had the chance to feel, while alive, as loved as she was.

Petrie left the position of medical examiner last summer. Her morale was low and she was ready to give acting another shot.

“Every person should have to work in the morgue for about three months of their life and just see it because it makes you respect life more. It makes you realize how quickly you could die,” she said.

Petrie now lives in Ridgewood, Queens, with her new husband, and they celebrated their first wedding anniversary last Tuesday. She works a day job in a furniture warehouse.

By night, she’s starting to tour the comedy circuit again, performing two or three times a week at bars and clubs around town, most recently at the Carolines on Broadway. She wants to become a regular at certain clubs and be seen by a wider audience.

“I feel like I’ve finally really held my voice back,” Petrie said. “I think part of it was being taken away from acting for a year while being surrounded by death and dealing with the shortness of life.”

His morgue stories appear in his stand-up through extended one-liners and riffs.

She’s also writing a memoir about her time in the morgue, based on notes she typed into her phone during lunch breaks.

Months in the morgue, Petrie discovers that she occasionally longs for a “lethal dose” to remember the fragility of life, and she will Google an image of violence or gore.

“If you can get past the point where it’s haunting your dreams and not hurting you, that’s very motivating,” she said. “It helps me start my day in a positive way: it’s not me. I have a chance today. I will make the most of it.

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