"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. Judy discusses her mentors, and what she learned under their tutelage. The stories are sometimes funny but always filled with the knowledge that comes from someone who truly knows their profession, and is probably one of the best.
I am a health care professional, so all of the stories describing the autopsy were informative, and brought me back to my anatomy and physiology years. For others, this detail may be too much, but I advise you skip over the parts that may disturb you, and concentrate on the stories. These are stories of the humans who inhabited the bodies that turned up in the Medical Examiner's Office. Dr. Judy Melinek gives us a rare glimpse into this world. I read this book during the Robin William's suicide, and Judy discusses her father's suicide and her reactions, which I found very helpful and filled with a daughter's memories. This book is well written, from Judy and her husband, TJ's perspectives. Memorable.
Recommended. prisrob 08-15-14
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. I was surprised about the lack of fatal car accidents in The Big Apple, but there's still plenty of others ways to get squashed. You'll see.
Here's the funny thing: amidst talking of death, decay, rot, and stench, you'll find moments of tenderness and life appreciation. Between Dr. Judy Melinek talking to the deceased's families, or her post-work conversations with husband T.J. Mitchell, there is plenty to be sentimental about. And then there's 9/11. Beside the serious issues, you'll also find a LOT of humor. I'm still laughing about how many folks walk around us with piercings hidden in their knickers: you'd be surprised.
Yes, I asked for more dead bodies. Instead of 10, I got over 200. I was scared, mortified, and shocked--and loved every minute of it. I could not put this book down. It was informative, very well written, and oddly satisfying. If you have any interest in this topic (and we know you do) then this will be an excellent book to pursue. (Just don't read it before bedtime or meals...bad idea.)
Thanks Scribner for providing this electronically for review. You answered the call and I had a hell of a time.
"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.
on May 11, 2015
I know it's cliche, but I literally have to keep myself from staying up all night reading this. I'm a little over half way through and I started reading it two nights ago. I LOVE this book. I love death investigation, pathology, thanatology, and criminal justice. I'd definitely recommend it if you're anything like me. Not that most of her bodies were homicides (in fact, there is a fascinating chapter dedicated to those specific ones), but the accidents, suicides, and undeterminds are equally interesting.
I digress, Judy is a fantastic story-teller. Her husband is a great writer. This combination makes for an easy, vivid read. The chapters are clean and relevant to the topic presented in each chapter. It seems like the format is statement, stories, statement, stories. The statement makes an interesting point, and then there is at least one entertaining, tragic, or maddening story to illustrate that point. The stories are told using some medical jargon, explained in a way a layman can understand, but it's not inundated with it so as to exasperate readers.
Like I said, this is a great book. I could go on all day, but I'll just say: Get it.
on December 2, 2014
I really enjoyed this book. I've read several of this type, and this is one of my favorites. The author gives enough medical examination detail for the lay person to understand what is happening. The 9/11 section was unexpected and appreciated as a glimpse into that particular body identification challenge. The author adds personal snipits that humanize the rest of the book as she takes the reader through autopsy techniques.
on November 4, 2015
It's been a while since I picked up a book so engaging that I walked around the house, nose-in-book, responding to family members with perfunctory "mm-hmms". Working Stiff was written by Dr. Judy Melinek and her husband, Author T.J. Mitchell. It is about Dr. Melinek's journey as a Medical Examiner, along with Mr. Mitchell, who followed her around the country and became a stay-at-home Dad. Not sure who had the harder job, but Working Stiff is about being a Medical Examiner, no matter how emphatically an at-home parent might suggest that the title also applies to him/her.
Two reasons the book is engrossing: great writing and great editing. Too often, I find I can skip half of a book and still extract the story. This is not that book. Though not a medical journal, Working Stiff is not dumbed down, nor is it soft-focused. If there's a decomposed body, the reader won't have to wonder how badly.
The fact that Dr. Melinek walked into work in New York City on September 11, 2001 begins one of the most gripping sections in the book. If you were somewhere besides New York City at the time and think you've seen it all: heard every survivor story, seen every newscast of the event, every you-tube video of people jumping off the Twin Towers, every History Channel recap, forget it. You know nothing. Most news coverage focused on emergency workers, or on the destruction visible for blocks. Unseen, in the middle of that, Dr. Melinek and her colleagues had the task of separating and cataloguing each piece of recognizable human remain that, well, remained. Long after much of the country had gone back to normal life, Dr. Melinek was still engaged in exacting, potentially overwhelming work.
In Working Stiff, Dr. Melinek offers a heartfelt look into her professional and family life. What was truly unique was what was absent. There were no elements of "how I had to fight for the respect of my male colleagues". There were no plot twists like: pouty significant other, lousy boss griping about daycare arrangements, hyper-competitive female colleagues making her life miserable, or any similar, real-life challenges I've read in other memoirs written by medical professional women. No, for Dr. Melinek, collegial respect seems to have always been presumed and given. She's had the consistent love and respect of a husband who honors her profession and has pursued Full-Time Parenting as the legitimate vocation it has always been. Is it true? Are we turning a corner in medicine and perhaps society? In which there aren't "woman doctors", just doctors? In which either parent can choose to be an at-home one? I'll hope so. For now, I recommend Working Stiff, a great read.
on January 7, 2015
In this spellbinding book, the author recounts her two years as a medical examiner (fellowship program) in New York City. During this period, she discusses some of her many cases and the techniques that she used in establishing the causes and manners of death – several of which were not so straightforward. Since this two-year period included the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent anthrax bioterrorism attacks as well as the American Airlines Flight 587 crash, the author has devoted two chapters, near the end of the book, about her professional involvement in these terrible disasters.
Throughout this book, the author pulls no punches – she freely includes details of her often-gruesome work. Although each case in clearly and objectively recounted, she always describes her work with much sensitivity and compassion for the victims and their families.
I found her writing style to be clear, lively, friendly and immensely engaging. I found the book quite difficult to put down. The many medical terms that are used are usually described in clear laymen’s terms, thus making the book broadly accessible. This book should appeal to any interested reader, but especially those interested in the medical aspects of forensic science.
on November 8, 2015
The life of a medical examiner is fascinating. Dr. Melinek interned in New York City so the autopsies she worked on were many and varied. She describes some of the things doctors have to consider in ruling cause of death (such as how close does a gunshot have to be to be a possible suicide). She also answers the question, what is the worst death she's seen? She began her internship just a few months before the terrorist attacks of September 11, and gives her unique perspective on that event. I'd never considered what it must have been like for those whose job it was too identify the remains of the many victims.
on December 30, 2014
Some people just hate to read about medical stuff so when I recommended this book (before reading it) to my book club, I heard some groans from a few people. I really liked the book. It is informative in terms of the profession of a medical examiner. As a newbie medical examiner with young children in NY during the time of 9/11, the author of this book provided information from a different perspective than a seasoned medical examiner. I liked Melinek's POV. The book was easy to read, yet disturbing because of the nature of many of her cases. Her life as a young mother affected her job despite her efforts to be objective, and I liked that it did. The part which dealt with how the 9/11 disaster was handled was insightful. I'm glad that I read the book and would recommend to others.
on December 28, 2014
The book is written from the perspective of the author which works overall. There are some rather descriptive areas in the book not for those who aren't in the business or who don't want to know the reality of people, death and crime.