When I was district medical examiner in Florida, my chief morgue assistant and longest-serving employee, Salvatore Medina, was the life of the office.
He teased stressed-out detectives, contorted his skinny body into body-builder poses while manipulating heavy corpses, told hilarious, politically incorrect stories and made the death and loss we dealt with bearable.
A 70-plus-year-old, 110-pound, 5-foot-2-inch Cuban émigré, Sal had a grizzled beard, a wicked sense of humor and little regard for propriety.
He bought boys' clothes, and sometimes women's shoes best fit his tiny feet.
Sal and his well-to-do family lost everything to Castro. He often spoke of the matchless beauty of his homeland, but said he'd never go back. It's ruined now. He'd rather remember how it was.
His Cuban doctorate wasn't recognized in the United States. He spent his adult life working as a laboratory technician and autopsy assistant.
Nothing diminished his zest for living.
Sal was irresistible to women. I once saw him inveigle a store clerk half his age - a complete stranger - into dancing in the aisles to Muzak.
In his fifth marriage, he fathered his ninth child when he was 69. He told people her name was Viagra.
Sal knew the business of everybody in the criminal-justice community. If a lawyer, police officer or private investigator, saddened by a divorce or death, came to the office in the course of business, Sal would put his arm around a shoulder, pat a hand, tell a joke or ask a question nobody else could get away with, and they would tell him everything. They'd leave the office in better spirits than when they came.
Sal cherished life, reveled in the good and took the bad in stride. He had no use for self-pity and no sympathy for denial.
One time, a young woman, despondent over a love affair, killed herself with the handgun her mother had given her for self-protection.
The distraught mother called the office almost daily, crying and begging for information - all of which she immediately dismissed or forgot.
One morning, Sal answered the phone.
"If only somebody could tell me what happened," the mother sobbed.
"You don't know what happened?"
"No, nobody can explain what happened."
"Lady, she put a gun in her mouth and blew her head off. That's what happened."
We never got another call. I did get a formal notice of complaint from the Medical Examiners Commission after the woman contacted every authority she could think of, including the governor's office.
When I took the complaint to Sal, he read it, tossed it aside and put a reassuring hand on my shoulder, eyes twinkling.
"Don't worry. She has nothing to complain about," he said. "She got what she wanted. She knows what happened - and we are rid of her, no?"
I told the commission I had placed Sal on probation. I said he got disciplinary counseling and sensitivity training and that further insensitive conduct would be grounds for firing.
firstname.lastname@example.org Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as
La Plata County coroner since January 2003.