Blog post

A Day in the life of a trauma cleaner – Interview by Ann Wason Moore

Posted on May 5, 2019

AS Brea Marshall begins flicking through photos on her phone, I start to get nervous.

The 34-year-old mother of two from Burleigh Heads is a trauma cleaner. From murders to suicides to meth labs to fires and floods, she’s seen — and cleaned — it all.

And now she wants to show me a picture from a recent job.

She assures me it’s not gory, but still I — and my stomach — worry.

After all, Brea is one of the first on the ground at any disaster. Literally. She assesses the damage, has the heartbreaking conversations with survivors and sorts through the mess left from physical and emotional catastrophe.

But the photo, when she finds it, proves that she’s true to her word.

There is no blood, no bodily fluids in evidence, not even any damage to the home in which the victim was found. But still, it’s shocking.

The picture does not say a thousand words, but one: help.

“The saddest thing is seeing how life can overwhelm you,” says Brea quietly.

In one corner of the pictured lounge room, dozens and dozens of empty casks of wine are piled into a teetering tower reaching the ceiling. In another, the floor is covered with the litter of empty pill packets.

Dirty dishes are stacked and spilling from the sink. In every place it is possible to see in this photo, there is an indication that this person just couldn’t cope any more. So, eventually and ultimately, they didn’t.

And then the family called Brea to help them. Overwhelm all over again.

“Dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic death is not the hard part, it’s dealing with the living,” says Brea, whose company PHJ Services is the only certified biohazard, trauma and crime scene clean-up service provider on the Gold Coast.

“Most people don’t realise that when police release the scene of a crime, they don’t clean it. Nor does anyone — but the survivors — pay for it.

“The families are just in shock and then there’s a crime scene to clean, of someone you love. I’m one of the few women in this industry and it can be hard, but I feel like that’s where my experience as a mother comes in.

“I still have to give them the hard facts of the time and money it will take to clean, but I understand that this was their child or parent or sibling. You have to remember these were all once babies that somebody, hopefully, loved.

“It’s part of my job to find those personal things left behind that can give the family some comfort — photos, notes, medical records. Anything that can help create understanding and closure.”

Despite the gruelling and gruesome work she undertakes, Brea says she actually prefers it to her old job in human resources.

Ironically, it was a family trauma that led her to this new path.

“PHJ was my dad’s business. He was a police officer and then went into cleaning. At the same time that I was made redundant in HR, he had a stroke. I took over the business temporarily, but then I realised that I wanted to stay.

“Every day is different. You never know what to expect. Last Friday night I got a call at 11pm that a man on ice had a psychotic break in a public toilet at Palm Beach. He smashed a mirror and was cutting himself up. I mean, it’s not the call you want on a Friday night but every day is a burst of adrenaline.

“Before I took over, Dad didn’t do much trauma cleaning, he was more in the domestic area. But one of my first call-outs on the job was to a man who shot himself in front of his partner.

“It was … brutal. From the clean to the emotional toll on us all, it was just … wow.

“But at the same time I could see that this was an area that no one on the Gold Coast was really doing. I decided we needed to do it and we needed to do it well.

“Unfortunately this industry is not regulated, but I sought out the only international body who accredits trauma cleaning, the ABRA (the America Bio Recovery Association), and booked us all in to learn.

PHJ Services clean up math labs as well.

“On the first day they set up a crime scene. They poured pig blood and lamb brains all over a room — brain is extremely hard to clean, it sets like glue — and left it for a week.

“We had a written and physical test at the end. What concerns me is how many people are called to a trauma cleaning without proper education. If you don’t clean these scenes correctly, not just you but the people who will live there can end up extremely ill.

“Beyond that, there is the issue of disposal of waste. Every time we have to get rid of a mattress, which is often, we have to call the tip and book a plot. They dig a hole in the ground where we have to seal and bury the mattress. Otherwise it’s environmentally unsafe.”

Brea says her job exposes the underbelly of the Gold Coast’s reputation as a bright, sunny paradise.

She says while she is often called to violent crimes, meth labs and the mess left from extreme hoarders, the bulk of her work comes from scenes of suicide.

She says last week alone she was called to four such jobs.

“It does make your heart ache when you find out how often it’s happening. It’s an epidemic,” she says.

PHJ Services also has the contract for Queensland Rail.

“We have the contract for Queensland Rail, to clean up when someone dies on the tracks, and that shocked even me.

“The unattended deaths are the saddest. People who have not only died on their own but are then left, sometimes for weeks until someone discovers them.

“The other thing that blows my mind is the sheer number of meth labs. Every neighbourhood has one. It doesn’t matter if you’re lower or higher socio-economically, in a unit or a house, it’s just widespread. It’s the same with suicide, actually.

“Then there’s domestic violence. You walk into a house and you see the trail of destruction as someone was trying to get away, trying to survive.

“And the thing is that we see just as many situations where the woman is the attacker as the man. The world can be a strange and scary place.

“It does make me hug my children tighter. Keeping a connection to family is what keeps us going, I think.”

Two years after inheriting the cleaning business from her father, Brea says she found herself in an emotional mess after her son, now five, was diagnosed with autism.

She says juggling two children, the family’s two careers and the emotional weight of personal and professional traumas, made her realise the importance of self-care.

“Fortunately both my son and I — our whole family — got the help that we needed to make it through. He’s thriving now and we’ve all found the rhythm in our lives,” she says.

“I actually have a cleaner for our own home! Life is just too busy otherwise.

“I’m very good now at identifying when I need to take a breath. It’s the threat of the overwhelm that worries me.

“I’ve seen it with the guys who work with me too. I don’t think I was as good initially, but now I know I need to check in with them all and at the end of any big clean we go to the pub and let it out. I’m careful to give them breaks between the really tough jobs as well.

“Any job where there are children involved hurts. We’ve gone to meth labs where there are just needles everywhere — and in the middle is a cot.

“Or you go to a suicide and there are little shoes lined up at the door. You just feel helpless.

“But then you have the times when the family of the victim shows their gratitude or work with you and it’s amazing.’’

She points to the loved ones of a man who committed suicide.

“His family, in the middle of their own agony, called us to say that he was HIV positive. They wanted to make sure we were safe when we were cleaning up,’’ she says.

“It takes a big person to look outside their grief and we are endlessly thankful.”

Brea says dealing with death every day has given her a new perspective on life.

She says although she doesn’t feel particularly religious, she does try to remember to appreciate every day.

“I don’t feel scared of death. I acknowledge and respect that it’s inevitable. It’s a fact of life.

“I do worry about an unattended death. It’s just a sad way to go. But I feel like that’s part of my job, to treat them with the dignity that perhaps didn’t exist in life.”

Brea says shame is another emotion she is regularly confronted with, particularly when the job concerns hoarders.

She says she had one job in the middle of Burleigh where the couple had completely filled their home with junk, as well as a storage pod on the property and were living in a caravan parked on the front lawn.

“The worst thing is that you know as soon as you’ve cleaned it, it’s going to start all over again,” she says.

“Obviously the people have had some sort of trauma themselves to live this way, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know it’s not right.

“I had one poor woman, there was a little tunnel from the front door to a chair where she lived, slept and ate. There was water damage so we had to clear everything.

“She kept saying to me, ‘I bet you’ve never seen anything like this before’. And at that time I really hadn’t, but I just said ‘Oh no, you’re fine, there’s plenty worse’. I could see her relief.

“She still had her dignity, even as she was struggling to let me clear out the huge stack of egg cartons she was collecting ‘just in case’.”

Brea says while downtime and self-care are important, the other coping tool for any trauma cleaner is humour.

She says it’s never at the expense of the victim or client, but a way of moving through fear or disgust.

“Some of these situations, if you don’t laugh you cry. Or vomit. Or possibly all three.

“The worst job we ever had was an elderly person who passed away in the middle of a hot summer. By the time the body was found, it had been four weeks. Four really hot, humid weeks.

“Neighbours were complaining of the smell and eventually they had to kick the door down.

“I have never in all of my life smelled anything like it. We had all hands on deck, my dad even came out of retirement for it.

“We had to jackhammer up the tiles, remove the walls right down to the besser blocks, just gut the entire unit. It took weeks and weeks.

“To this day, it’s the benchmark of how big a job can be. We have a scale of ‘one to Terry’ (name changed).”

Brea says while her job might be different to that of most other mums, both her kids and her husband are proud of her profession.

“The kids tell other people that their mum cleans up blood,” she laughs.

“I’m not sure if they think it’s a euphemism or not, but it’s pretty accurate.

“They flicked through my phone once and found something they shouldn’t but fortunately they’ve got pretty strong stomachs.

“Maybe they’ll end up being doctors or surgeons one day. The blood won’t faze them.”

While I have to admit relief that it was the kids rather than me who stumbled on those photos, it strikes me that there is a parallel between the medical profession and that of the trauma cleaner.

Both require skill and a tough constitution, and what separates the good from the great is the bed — or deathbed — manner.

Brea surely has a strong stomach, but also a soft heart.

And who knows? Maybe her work clearing the air, consoling survivors and creating closure helps some of those lost souls to move on gracefully from a messy life.

If you need someone to talk to, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.