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Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner [Kindle Edition]

Judy Melinek MD
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (367 customer reviews)

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Book Description

The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s “rookie season” as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases—hair-raising and heartbreaking and impossibly complex—that shaped her as both a physician and a mother.

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.

Editorial Reviews


“Far from the magic we see on TV, Working Stiff describes forensic pathology in the real world. The book is a compelling and absorbing read.” (Kathy Reichs, author of the Temperance Brennan "Bones" series)

"Fascinating case studies and a refreshing irreverence toward death and autopsies make Working Stiff a funny and engrossing read." (Sandeep Jauhar, author of "Intern: A Doctor's Initiation" and "Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician")

Working Stiff is an engrossing and revealing glimpse into the making of a medical examiner with a searing insider's view into working at the New York Medical Examiner's Office during and just after 9/11. The story of how the author dealt with her father's suicide during childhood and later had to deal with suicides as part of her duties is wrenching and compelling." (Jan Garavaglia, M.D. (Dr. G from the Discovery Channel Series and author of "How Not to Die")

"A riveting read, at once compassionate and morbidly fascinating." (Todd Harra, author of "Over Our Dead Bodies")

"Working Stiff is an eye-opening, gripping account of the life of a forensic pathologist working in New York City. Whether dealing with routine autopsies, surviving relatives, or the catastrophe of September 11, Dr. Judy Melinek reveals the dignity of being human in the face of death." (Leora Tanenbaum, author of "Taking Back God")

"In this engrossing tale of how Melinek became a forensic pathologist, she pulls back the sheet to show readers just what goes on after someone dies... Armchair detectives and would-be forensic pathologists will find Melinek’s well-written account to be inspiring and engaging." (Publishers Weekly)

"Both chilling and heart-warming at the same time, Judy Melinek's account explains how empathy and humanity are as important working with the dead as they are with the living. She strikes the balance just right in helping us better understand what we most fear, yet still fear it all the same." (Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, PEN America Center)

"Melinek’s enthusiasm for her calling is always apparent, and her writing is un–self-consciously bouncy, absorbed and mordant (though not caustic).... A transfixing account of death, from the mundane to the oddly hair-raising." (Kirkus Reviews)

Working Stiff is the grossest book you'll ever love. But it is also so much more than that: Seamlessly fusing memoir, science journalism, riveting whodunit mysteries, and light humor about a dark topic, Working Stiff is a relentlessly fascinating and informative book from the first page to the last. Judy Melinek--whether she's re-enacting assaults in a courtroom while heavily pregnant, or fighting with lazy homicide detectives, or solving amazing forensic mysteries through the ghastly things she does with her corpses--is an unfailingly charming and even inspiring guide to the world of medical examiners. A remarkable achievement by Mitchell and Melinek. (Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic magazine, and author of the New York Times Bestseller "My Age of Anxiety")

"Spellbinding. . . . Melinek is movingly empathetic toward the families of victims. . . . An unforgettable story." (Booklist starred review)

"Working Stiff is a page-turning, engrossing book that reveals a hidden world and shows that the work of understanding death is actually a labor of life.” (

"Melinek chronicles her time at the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — and it’s nothing like what you see on television." (New York Post)

“The flamboyant disclosures—how to handle rotting flesh or use pruning shears to snap ribs—are balanced by her soul-baring account of identifying human remains in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001.” (Nature Magazine)

"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.” (Washington Post)

“Fun, sentimental where appropriate and full of smart science. Fans of CSI — the real kind — will want to read it.” (Washington Post)

"Working Stiff is an account of Melinek's years in training, complete with gory details, heartfelt emotions and plenty of ripped-from-the-headlines case studies. This mixture of nonfiction and narrative makes for compelling, informative reading as Melinek works through cases of homicide, accidental death, medical error and suicide--and becomes even more powerful as the authors recount the harrowing weeks and months following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, which brought more bodies and death to Melinek's door than ever before." (Shelf Awareness)

"Haunting and illuminating...the stories from [Dr. Melinek's] average workdays should also transfix the reader with their demonstration that medical science can diagnose and console long after the heartbeat stops." (New York Times)

"[Melinek's] true, frank and often funny account, written with her husband TJ Mitchell, reveals how as a young forensic pathologist her “rookie season” brought some incredibly harrowing deaths that would have rocked a less strong personality to the core in the Big Apple." (Mirror UK)

About the Author

Judy Melinek is a forensic pathologist and an associate clinical professor at UCSF Medical Center. She earned her college degree from Harvard and received her medical degree and pathology residency training at UCLA. She has worked and lived in San Francisco with her husband, T.J. Mitchell, and their children since 2004.

T.J. Mitchell graduated with an English degree from Harvard and worked in the film industry before becoming a full-time stay-at-home dad in 2000.

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Staying Alive Is Mostly Common Sense August 15, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
"Staying alive is mostly common sense", Judy Melinek tells her husband, TJ, after he complains that listening to her daily stories of her work as a Forensic Pathologist, will cause him to wear gloves and a mask when he is out in public. Certainly the stories, Judy shares can be gruesome and cause one to wonder how they will die. After all, a pathologist gives you the last physician exam you will ever have.

Judy Melinek, the author, along with her husband, TJMitchell, gives us the story of her life as a Medical Examiner, or Forensic Pathologist in New York City. Here, she learned at the hands of some of the best pathologists in the world. Judy and TJ met at Harvard where they both graduated. Judy went on to study as a surgeon in a prestigious hospital in Boston. What this experience taught her was that she would be forever tired, and working as a surgeon under these conditions is dangerous to us, her patients. After taking a year off to bring her son into the world, she studied as a pathology resident in California, and then went to the Medical Examiner's office in New York City.

All of Judy's stories were exhilarating and informative, but the most unbelievable and realistic experience was after the 9/11 disaster. Each body and each body part, no matter how small, had to be examined. Judy relates the organization required and the skill set necessary to get through this trying time. The other point that Judy makes quite well, is that a autopsy is a medical discovery. You need to want to be a detective. One of the most important parts of the job, is communicating with the family. You are delivering the news on how a love one died. Some relatives are disbelieving, some don't want to know the truth. But, your word is the last word.
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30 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Be careful what you ask for. A few weeks ago I reviewed Andrew Meredith's THE REMOVERS. In it, I asked for "more dead bodies." I even taunted them in my blog post with GIF images of bloody cadavers and an exploding whale. Well, Scribner listened and delivered.

Let's set this up a bit more: on one side, a medically trained examiner who uses all the precise and exact terms of the body's innards; combined with (married to) Harvard English major--you know, to make sure the wording is...just right. Yeah. You see where this is going? Then, take this dynamic duo to New York City. You know those one-in-a-million stories? Well, as the authors cleverly point out, New York City has 8 million people.

This husband and wife duo corresponded and plotted this book a lot through e-mail. Some of that behind the scene's stuff has been captured for our extended-gory interest. The husband's blog has a great sample of one such exchange (grocery shopping & dead bodies...whatever works).

WARNING! Thought I'd put this in all caps to get your attention. Just to be sure: WARNING! If you have any medical history whatsoever, be cautious about reading this book. If you drink, eat, or walk on the sidewalk, or breath, be cautious about reading this book. You think deaths are quick and painless? You might not want to read this book. (But really, if you are like me, I know you'll still want to--sicko!)

If you google my name and the words "cardiac arrest", you'll see why I was a bit squeamish when the authors talk about a heart busting through one of the body's cavity walls. I have friends with epilepsy, and the authors kindly point out how it kills. You like to drink? Yeah, Mr. Budweiser and his friends are big time killers.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition
"Let conversation cease. Let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living." These words welcomed Dr. Judy Melinek to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York. Newly hired as a pathology fellow, she spent the next 2 years performing autopsies on a wide variety of cases to determine cause and manner of death for the official death certficate. This first person account puts the reader right into the mind and heart of the doctor as she receives her training and as she deals with many different situations in the morgue and out on a scene or in the city courthouse.

The book is rich in medical detail so be prepared for grisly, uncensored description of the cases Dr. Melinek witnesses or is tangentially involved in. Of particular horror are the sections recounting her experiences in the aftermath of both the 9/11 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and the American Airlines Flight 587 crash in Queens. I was particularly moved recognizing again the incredible effort during that mass-casualty disaster and the valiant, heroic people who tried to sustain the living so they could identify and reclaim the dead.

A bit uneven, the narrative jumps around in time, but is suffused with the personality and innate character of the author and her dedication to her profession. I love to read anything medical, and found this book extremely satisfying -- clearing up any misconceptions about what the job of Medical Examiner is and isn't. I recommend it to anyone interested in forensic pathology in its stark reality. I'll be thinking about the content for a long while and will remember that death investigation reveals that most unexpected fatalities are "either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something preditably hazardous." That's somewhat comforting, right?

Thank you to NetGalley and Scribner for the e-book ARC to review.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Really enjoyed this book.
An inspiring book, raw, honest, humorous, loved it. If I ever end up on the table I hope it's Dr. Melinek's. :D
Published 18 hours ago by Lauren
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read
Well written and viewed that awful day in September, 2001 from a different viewpoint. I enjoyed this book as I have an interest in forensics and pathology.
Published 19 hours ago by Kimberly W. Berg
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written and fascinating
Such an interesting read, I was truly impressed by the way the subject matter was handled.
Published 1 day ago by T. Clark
4.0 out of 5 stars Great read!
Told from the honest first person point of view of a NYC medical examiner during 2 of the most trying years for the city. Heartbreaking and real. Could not put it down!
Published 4 days ago by H.Para
3.0 out of 5 stars A good explanation of the life of a medical examiner - ...
A good explanation of the life of a medical examiner - too bad it digressed into a story of 9/11.
Published 4 days ago by John Klinedinst
5.0 out of 5 stars The discussion of the worst case was just enough to get the point...
Gruesome details and just enough gore to make it interesting. I wish the book was longer. The reader uses levity to lighten the reading. I gave it 5 stars but would rate it 9/10. Read more
Published 5 days ago by Ken
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating!
A few more books like this one, and I'll be weaned completely off fiction. Reminiscent of Five Days at Memorial. I just couldn't tear myself away. Read more
Published 6 days ago by Harper
5.0 out of 5 stars book review
Very interesting view into a world that most of us never get to see. Good read for anyone, no medical background required.
Published 6 days ago by O-Dawg
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book
Gave tremendous insight to the world of this type of work and just how important it is. It puts the reader right alongside Dr. Melinek as she works her cases. Read more
Published 7 days ago by amanda Lugo
4.0 out of 5 stars easy, interesting
Quick, easy, interesting, and entertaining reading.
Published 8 days ago by H. C. Knight
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