Dr Richard Shepherd, one of the country’s most distinguished forensic pathologists, has led a life immersed in death.
He has presided over more than 23,000 autopsies, and his work has involved him in some of the most shocking tragedies that have befallen the world over the past 40 years: 9/11, 7/7, the death of Princess Diana, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the serial killings of Dr Harold Shipman, the Hungerford massacre, the suicide of Dr David Kelly, the Cumbria shootings, the murder of Jo Cox MP and the Bali bombings.
Since qualifying as a doctor in 1977, Shepherd has witnessed enough trauma to last several lifetimes. And yet he remained, apparently, unaffected by all the death and devastation he had seen – until one tiny, seemingly innocuous moment in 2016 changed everything.
The 68-year-old, who is married to Linda, a forensic physician, and has two adult children, Chris and Anna, takes up the story. “You know you can buy cubes of ice in a bag at the supermarket? That’s what we have in the fridge, as I’m sure many people do. One evening, I was mixing my wife a gin and tonic, so I opened the freezer door and grabbed a couple of ice cubes.
“But seeing the ice in the bag took me straight back to the heat and the smell and the bodies lying on the ground in Bali in 2002. It was awful there. The infrastructure in that country simply wasn’t there. The mortuary was terrible. It was really dirty and only had one tap, which dribbled rather than ran. There was no storage space, and that’s why we were using bags of ice to try and cool the bodies. So opening a bag of ice at home several years later suddenly triggered PTSD within me.”
In a characteristically professional, restrained British manner, after this severe episode of PTSD, Shepherd attempted to keep calm and carry on, claiming everything was fine. “I got through a very bad night and went to my office on my own the next morning, but I just sat there, completely frozen.
“So I phoned the GP and said, ‘Hello, I’d like an appointment.’
They replied, ‘I’m sorry, you can only make appointments at 8 o’clock in the morning.’
‘I think I might be about to kill myself.’
There was a brief silence before they said, ‘Would you like to come straight down?’”
The mental health services immediately kicked into action, and Shepherd says, “I’ve been so, so lucky with the people who have helped me. The mental health nurses came round immediately, and the acute support team were just phenomenal people. I remember one of them saying to me, ‘You know, the thing that really worries me about doctors is that a lot of patients talk about suicide, but you actually know what to do!’”
Never far away from the next flash of gallows humour, Shepherd continues, “But not all those times were dark. For instance, when I drove up to my psychologist’s house for my first therapy session, I noticed that it was called Wit’s End. I thought, ‘I trust this woman already!’”
These jokes are typical of Shepherd’s jet-black sense of humour. He uses laughter as a coping strategy, believing it is necessary to lighten the darkest moments. For example, he remarks that, after the supermarket bag of ice prompted his PTSD, “I did try and sue the supermarket, but it didn’t go well!”
In a similarly light-hearted vein, he reveals that, as a specialist in knife crime, he used to test out his theories using different knives on the meat he was carving for the family dinner. “I didn’t stab every Sunday roast with a variety of knives, but the children definitely did see me do it sometimes. How else do you assess these things? Why waste an opportunity?”
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