The state medical examiner said Monday that he and an orderly suffered cyanide poisoning when they cut into the stomach of a woman who had committed suicide over the weekend.
"It was scary - real scary," said Dr. Todd Grey. "We literally got gassed."Grey and orderly Mike Brookey were conducting an autopsy Sunday of a woman found dead alongside a road outside Moab in southeastern Utah. Part of the procedure involves examining the contents of the deceased's stomach and intestines.
"I cut into the stomach and Mike went right to the floor," Grey said. "I had to carry him out."
Grey said the gas left him feeling giddy and feeling a burning sensation in his nose and mouth. Blood tests showed both men had cyanide in their bloodstreams more than an hour after the incident. Brookey was given the day off and both returned to work Monday.
Grey and three of his colleagues knew working with cyanide victims could be dangerous. A similar incident in the office two years ago prompted them to write an article entitled, "The Bio-Hazard Potential of Cyanide Poisoning During Post-Mortem Examination."
The monograph was published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences last month and describes the generation of hydrogen cyanide gas when cyanide comes into contact with stomach acid. It is the same gas used in gas chambers to execute convicted felons.
While Grey sees that coincidence as ironic, just as strange was the presence of yet another cyanide victim in the room when the two were overcome over the weekend.
One of the telltale symptoms of cyanide poisoning is the odor of bitter almonds, which the poison emanates. Grey said he kept getting faint whiffs of the smell, but wrote it off as coming from the other cadaver.
"So when I opened this woman's stomach, I got a blast," he said. "I turned to Mike to tell him it was this one and watched him go to the floor."
In addition, the dead woman did not display any of the other overt signs of cyanide poisoning, so he and Brookey were not on guard.
The fast-acting poison generally is found in the vicinity of the body, and its presence alerts police and medical personnel to the potential hazard. Its symptoms also can include a cherry-pink coloration of the victim's skin.
Most telling, though, is the almond smell, which Grey said can be detected by about 40 percent of the population.
"Fortunately, I'm one of them," Grey said.
Grey said he was still unsure how the woman ingested the poison. Grand County Sheriff Jim Nyland suggested the poison was in a bottle of picante sauce found near the body.
Not anticipating any hazard, Grey said he and Brookey were clad only in gowns, masks and double-thick rubber gloves used as a protection against infection.