Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband T.J. and their toddler Daniel holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation—performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff chronicles Judy’s two years of training, taking readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.
Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff offers a firsthand account of daily life in one of America’s most arduous professions, and the unexpected challenges of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. The body never lies—and through the murders, accidents, and suicides that land on her table, Dr. Melinek lays bare the truth behind the glamorized depictions of autopsy work on shows like CSI and Law & Order to reveal the secret story of the real morgue.
My favorite part of Law and Order is when the detectives visit the morgue. “See these marks around the neck?”, the medical examiner asks.
“Yeah,” the grizzly cop says, “from hanging himself.”
“If he hung himself they’d go upwards behind the ears, but these marks go straight back. He was strangled.”
“You’ve got yourself a homicide.”
I love that! The courtrooms and stuff are good too, but the medical evidence is where it’s at. If you agree you’ll love Working Stiff.
Melinek goes through her training and most memorable cases as a medical examiner in New York City. She started her career as a surgeon but found 130 hour work weeks unsustainable (luckily there are limits on that now), and forensic pathology was a way to keep her scalpel and do good.
“There are no emergency autopsies,” another resident pointed out to me. “Your patients never complain. They don’t page you during dinner. And they’ll still be dead tomorrow.”
Cutting open dead bodies is by definition gruesome but the gore is never played up for gore’s sake. A medical examiner has to master both the medical/legal language surrounding death and common sense explanations to use with families, and Melinek does a great job keeping everything intelligible.
I wrote the cause of death as “anoxic encephalopathy due to loss of consciousness of undetermined etiology.” This translates as “lack of oxygen to the brain from fuck-if-I-know.”
That being said if you already know your spleen from your pancreas you’ll feel even more at home.
The stories progress from training through routine autopsies, homicides, and finally the teased terrorist attacks and plane crash. It’s not linear but the order eases the reader into forensics, showing how each situation is handled. And there’s so much cool stuff! Injuries that only show up after a day has passed, how to figure out which stab wound came first, pinning down someone’s age thanks to a single rib bone.
Melinek co-wrote this book with her husband and you do get the feel that there are two hands at work, with Melinek writing up the cases and Mitchell adding the connective tissue that hold them together. It was never enough to take me out of the story, but it was there. And fair warning – she talks about her father’s suicide at length, so beware if that’s something you’d rather not read.
A wonderful read for medical geeks and anyone who perks up when Law and Order heads to the morgue.