Close-up on death: The life of a medical examiner in New York

August 18, 2014

“I’m not a ghoulish person,” writes Judy Melinek.

But when her lifelong goal of becoming a surgeon fell apart amid the pressures and fatigue of residency — several times she had a scalpel in her hands for 60 hours at a time, she writes, interrupted only by short naps — she remembered that the happiest she had been in medical school was when she studied pa­thol­ogy.

So she switched her patient roster from the living to the dead.

In “Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner,” she describes learning to be a forensic pathologist, investigating and testifying about sudden, unexpected or violent deaths. Though she had been studying in Boston, she did this residency at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner because, as her chief advised, there are “all kinds of great ways to die there.”

She found the work just as rewarding and intellectually stimulating as surgery, with the added benefit of a calmer atmosphere.


“Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner” by Judy Melinek, M/D., and T.J. Mitchell (Scribner)

“Your patients never complain,” a colleague pointed out.

“They don’t page you during dinner.” And there’s no rush: “They’ll still be dead tomorrow.”

Written with her husband, T.J. Mitchell, the book is an enthusiastic, readable chronicle of decomposition and poison residues, homicide and rape kits, crime scenes and court testimony, and working on bodies from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “I love the work, the science, the medicine,” she writes. But she also loves “speaking for the dead” and points out that “to confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you have to love the living.”

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