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Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

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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, and counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff takes 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 bioterrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines Flight 587. Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff explores both the challenges and rewards of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead.

270 pages, Paperback

First published August 12, 2014

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About the author

Judy Melinek

7 books316 followers
Judy Melinek, M.D. is a graduate of Harvard University. She trained at UCLA in medicine and pathology, graduating in 1996. Her training at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York is the subject of her memoir, Working Stiff, which she co-wrote with her husband, T.J. Mitchell. Currently, Dr. Melinek is CEO of PathologyExpert Inc., & works as a forensic pathologist in Oakland, California. She also travels nationally and internationally to lecture she has been consulted as a forensic expert in many high-profile legal cases.

First Cut will be the debut novel in a medical examiner detective-fiction series.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,377 reviews
Profile Image for Miranda Reads.
1,589 reviews155k followers
December 10, 2020
Not for the faint of heart

While I was on my 'people who work with dead-bodies' kick ( Stiff, Good Mourning), I stumbled upon this gem.

This book wasn't as research-heavy as Stiff nor was it as focused as Good Mourning but I certainly enjoyed listening it. This one was able to give a fascinating medical examiner's perspective on the deceased.

As described in the title, this book covers the bodies Judy Melinek tacked throughout her residency in a New York morgue.

She starts with the natural causes, meanders through a few murders and a couple of heart-wrenching cases. All the while she keeps an upbeat tone. Gallows humor, if you will.

But, about halfway through the book, all trace of that lightness disappears.

9/11 happens and Judy Melinek is in the city.

With no one else to turn to, she and the rest of the morgue team has the nearly unimaginable task of processing the twin towers bodies.

She was completely overwhelmed and distraught and yet manages to hold her own despite the mountains of bodies in freezers for her to categorize and identify.

I felt overwhelmed just reading this. I hadn't read the back of the book before reading this, so I was completely blindsided by the 9/11 tie-in.

This is certainly a riveting read - though you may want to read it on an empty stomach if you are squeamish.

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Profile Image for j e w e l s.
309 reviews2,370 followers
July 22, 2018

Dear Fiction Writers,

If you are looking for story ideas, read this non-fiction book! It's chock full of interesting deaths and fascinating details on the science of the human body.

I was gripped from the first page as Dr. Melinek begins her journey of training to be a medical examiner in New York City, 2001. She obviously found time (who knows how?!?!) to record in her daily journal for two years. Little did she realize she was about to play a crucial part as one of the investigators in America's greatest human tragedy.

As a new trainee, she was thrown into 9/11 to sift through semi-truck trailers full of body parts, jet fuel and ash. She relates this horrific experience with humbleness and gratitude for the first responders. It is a sobering, deeply touching account for the reader.

The 9/11 section is basically only one chapter of this terrific book. Mostly, the author relays the various stupid things humans do to themselves and each other that cause death. She has strong opinions against suicide (her own father hung himself when she was 13) and I found her candor on the subject profound and endearing. She never comes across as preachy.

If you have the stomach for forensic science, I think you will love this book as much as I did. Truly one of the most compelling books I've read in awhile!
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,345 reviews4,865 followers
December 3, 2021

4.5 stars

The work of a medical examiner (ME) is endlessly fascinating to the public, as evidenced by the many TV shows that feature forensic pathologists - like Quincy; Law and Order; CSI; NCIS; Rizzoli and Isles; Hawaii-Five-O and others. In fiction, pathologists often resolve their cases quickly - making lightning fast determinations, intuiting what happened, and (often) nabbing the culprit themselves.

This is very different from real life, where toxicology and DNA tests take months to process, coroners' findings are relayed to police detectives, and the cops (hopefully) nab the perp. Moreover, in reality, most deaths are due to natural causes, disease, accidents, undetected anatomical defects, mental illness, and so on - and no crimes are involved.

In this enlightening and entertaining book, Dr. Judy Melinek describes her two years as a forensic pathology fellow at the 'Office of the Chief Medical Examiner' (OCME) in New York, where she honed her chops as an ME.

Dr. Judy Melinek

The ME's job is to determine the cause and manner of death in cases where the deceased dies suddenly, violently, unexpectedly, in suspicious circumstances, etc.

When Melinek graduated from UCLA Medical School in 1996, she wanted to be a surgeon. The surgical residency was grueling, however, and Melinek feared making a mistake that would kill a patient. Thus, Melinek switched her specialty to forensic pathology. Melinek's interest in the field may have stemmed, in part, from the suicide of her father at age 38, when she was 13 years old - an event she discusses extensively in the book.

Melinek, her husband J.T. Mitchell (the co-author of this book), and their baby Daniel settled down in New York in 2001.

Dr. Judy Melinek and her husband J.T. Mitchell

There, Melinek began work at the OCME under the tutelage of Dr. Charles Hirsch - whom she describes as "a pipe-smoking, avuncular doctor out of a Norman Rockwell painting."

Dr. Charles Hirsch

Among other things, Hirsch held morning rounds and afternoon rounds, at which the medical examiners presented their findings and discussed what to write on death certificates about the cause and manner of death. These determinations were made using a variety of means, such as: the autopsy; visiting the death scene; reviewing medical records; speaking to witnesses; consulting detectives; and so on.....all while collecting evidence that might be used in court.

When assigned a body to autopsy, the first thing an ME does is examine the person's external characteristics, and make a record of bruises, cuts, scrapes, scars, tattoos, burns, needle marks, and so on. The ME then goes on to probe the inside of the body, and these procedures are thoroughly described in the book.

Medical examiner noting a body's external characteristics

During her two years at the OCME Melinek worked on a wide variety of cases, including victims of the World Trade Center disaster; people who contracted anthrax from a bioterrorism scare; and bodies from American Airlines Flight 587 - which crashed in NYC. To provide a feel for Melinek's job, I'll give examples of some of the cases she worked on or observed.

Cable Guy
A man dubbed 'Cable Guy' smoked crystal meth before walking his dogs, and accidentally locked himself out of his 9th floor apartment. Instead of calling a locksmith, Cable Guy tied his dogs to the doorknob, went up to the roof, tied a cable around his chest, and tried to rappel down to his open window one floor down. The cable broke and the man fell to his death. Melinek's autopsy showed a fractured skull and shattered ribs that cut through the victim's lungs, esophagus, aorta, and pulmonary artery. The death was ruled accidental. The dogs were fine.

Grisly Industrial Accident
An egg roll factory has a combination shredder-mixer that fills a whole room. The shredder in a Manhattan plant blew apart while spinning, and sent the central drum and blade flying. The blade amputated the arm of one worker, and shrapnel injured two other employees. The metal cylinder landed on the upper chest and neck of a fourth worker, who was pinned to the floor and crushed. Melinek found that the man's head was uninjured and he was fully conscious until he died of suffocation. The unfortunate victim's death was ruled accidental.

Melinek performed scores of autopsies on people who died of acute or chronic alcohol intoxication. Melinek's last autopsy in New York was on a victim who died of acute AND chronic alcohol poisoning. A man's dead body was found on the steps of a church in winter. After getting the results of toxicological tests, Melinek determined that the deceased - a chronic alcoholic who had lived on the streets for 30 years - was fall down drunk when he fell asleep and died of hypothermia. The death was ruled an accident.

Drug Overdose
Deaths from a drug overdose are fairly common, the typical victim being young and otherwise healthy. To fill out the death certificate, Melinek would usually just wait for the toxicology report and write in the cause of death. Drug overdose autopsies were usually quick and easy.....unless the family of the victim couldn't accept the truth.

Robert Ward was a 28-year-old white man with a history of alcoholism and drug abuse. One day Robert went out with friends, and was later found dead in his apartment. His mom, Mrs. Ward, didn't want her son autopsied: "Don't touch my baby." An autopsy was required by law, however, and the toxicology report took four months to reach Melinek's office.

During that time Mrs. Ward called Melinek at least twice a week, insisting 'Bobby didn't do drugs', and offering other theories for his death. These included: bad sushi, poisonous beer, misuse of a friend's asthma medication, anthrax, Nyquil, and dust mites.

When the toxicology report was finally completed, it showed a lethal concoction of heroin, cocaine, and the sedative diazepam.....and Melinek ruled Ward's death an accident. However Mrs. Ward couldn't let it go, and now insisted that Bobby's death was a homicide, the fault of the dealer who sold him the drugs.

The Bucket Bugaboo
A police officer brought the OCME a goop-filled bucket that looked like it might contain a dead fetus. An ME carefully emptied the pail, which contained a statuette of kissing angels, maraschino cherries, and a couple of two-foot-long donkey dongs. No fetus. The consensus was that this was probably a Santeria love potion.....not a case for the OCME. (LOL)

Melinek saw many suicides. These cases were fairly easy to diagnose, especially when they required premeditation and planning - like suicide by hanging, which causes ligature marks on the neck and purple hands and feet. Other suicides during Melinek's tenure at the OCME included people who jumped into the East River, and victims who leapt from the balcony of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square. The hotel jumpers might have expected a smooth fall to the ground, but they generally pinballed and bumped into structures, severing their limbs and scattering their brains all over.

Sometimes apparent 'suicides' were actually homicides or accidents, and the ME's final determination depended on investigation of the death scene; information provided by families and police detectives; a suicide note; and so on.

Attack on the World Trade Center
On September 11, 2001 - nine weeks after Melinek started work at the OCME - two planes collided with the World Trade Center, causing thousands of deaths. The bodies of the victims came to the OCME, and Melinek was one of 30 doctors who worked to identify the remains and assemble evidence of mass murder. Many of the victims had been smashed to bits, and the MEs had to treat each specimen - be it a hand, a toe, a scrap of tissue, etc. - as if it were an entire body.....the goal being to identify the deceased.

The bodies and body parts arrived by the truckload, and after DNA was collected, each 'specimen' was assigned to an ME. Melinek's first 'body' was a smashed head and torso - limbs gone, body missing below the naval - which was burned black and smelled of jet fuel. The MEs' sole task was identification, so each doctor tried to use fingerprints, distinguishing marks, personal possessions - whatever they could find - to ID the victims. This was a daunting task that took eight months, during which 'ordinary' autopsies also had to be done. Needless to say, Melinek and her colleagues were overwhelmed.

Anthrax Scare
The World Trade Center situation was exacerbated by the anthrax scare, which began a week after 9/11. Someone started sending letters containing anthrax germs to news agencies in New York and Florida, and to politicians in Washington DC. Several people died, and the OCME began to get myriad phone calls from frightened citizens. Moreover, the OCME's technicians were too scared to assist with autopsies, so Melinek and the other MEs had to work alone (or assist each other).

Plane Crash
As if 9/11 and the anthrax scare weren't bad enough, New York experienced a major plane wreck in November, 2001. American Airlines Flight 587 crashed soon after taking off from JFK International Airport, killing all 261 souls aboard, as well as five people on the ground. Again the victims' remains were taken to the OCME, where the mauled, twisted, charred, kerosene-contaminated body parts were identified. The cause of the crash - at first thought to be terrorism - was determined to be pilot error.

In spite of it all, Melinek enjoyed her job and the 'trial by fire' she endured while working at the OCME. During her time there, Melinek performed 262 autopsies, made 13 court appearances, and had another baby. After completing her two-year fellowship in forensic pathology in 2002, Melinek did a one-year fellowship in neuropathology, then took a job in San Jose, California. Since then Melinek has performed thousands more autopsies.

In summary, Melinek notes that she loves the work, the medicine, and the science; she also loves the non-medical aspects of the job, including counseling families, collaborating with detectives, and testifying in court. Sounds good to me!

I enjoyed the book, which contains numerous compelling stories about Melinek's - and her colleagues - work, as well as amusing tidbits about the authors' personal lives. I'd recommend this memoir to everyone interested in forensic pathology.

You can follow my reviews at https://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot....
Profile Image for Matt.
3,725 reviews12.8k followers
April 27, 2018
While the world of medicine is likely beyond the comprehension of many, there is always an interest in some of the more bizarre cases that make their way onto the public’s radar. These types of medical situations are anomalies, according to Dr. Judy Melinek, MD and TJ Mitchell, citing that the vast majority of medical cases are not worthy of a script on prime time television. After leaving her surgical residency, Melinek leapt at the chance to enrol in one focussed on pathology, with significant interest in the forensic arm of the field. This led to a two-year fellowship in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York, where Melinek was able to see some of her most exciting and interesting cases, described throughout the book. While many think of a medical examiner as being one who deals in homicides, Melinek explains that there are many types of life-ending situations that ended up before her. Some were quite serious, including the man who leapt five storeys to his death and fractured numerous bones, while others were overly comical, like the man who died from complications with his metal penile implant. Not only does the job require an examination of the body to determine the matter of death, but can be quite contentious if the family disagrees or the matter makes its way to court. Melinek explains that her job can be quite stressful, especially as the body is not always forthcoming with evidence of what has happened and witnesses can inject their own bias surrounding the events leading to the end of life. Melinek may have a humours side, but her work also subjects her to numerous cases of horrible death or suffering, not the least of which was the fallout of the September 11, 2001 disaster, where she and her team (alongside many others) were tasked with identifying remains and trying to bring closure for many. Full of oddities that many readers will likely feel must be real—as this stuff could never be made up—the book will education as well as entertain the curious reader. Perfect for those who have an affinity for all things medical and enjoy some of the funnier predicaments in which people can find themselves at the point of death. A lighter read for those who want to absorb rather than construct strong opinions.

Melinek and Mitchell have created an interesting piece here, serving to dispel the myths of television dramatization of the former’s job as well as presenting some of the more interesting parts of work as a medical examiner. The authors do a masterful job of explaining the medical nuances of the work and injecting a less than intensely serious aspect, which can sometimes help to make the vignettes more alluring. At no time should the reader feel that the profession is anything but serious, though there are so many interesting files that must cross the desk of a medical examiner that they are forced to find some of the lighter sides to get through the day. I can only suspect that many of the names (and some facts) have been fudged, as the authors freely offer names and situations to help the reader feel as though they are in the middle of the situation at hand. Told in a straightforward manner with some medical jargon (which is fully explained), the reader is given a decent dose of the profession without drowning in the minutiae. Melinek and Mitchell divide the book’s chapter’s up to discuss a specific theme and choose a central case, whose narrative builds throughout, as well as some minor side vignettes to exemplify some of the arguments being presented. This not only allows the reader to have a better handle on the topic, but see it from multiple perspectives. As I am a big fan of forensic medicine, this book was right up my alley and served as a wonderful way to sit back and relax after some high-intensity reading of late.

Kudos, Dr. Melinek and Mr. Mitchell, for this wonderful piece, that served the purpose I needed. I will keep my eyes open for anything else you may write, though will steer clear of any medical journals, even though some of the findings would surely be eye-opening.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for Greta G.
337 reviews243 followers
December 13, 2018
A long time ago, I had to attend an autopsy for my work, concerning a case of a fatal accident. I wasn't glad with it, because the only time I saw a dead person up until then, was some 15 years earlier, when I was twelve.
It was my nephew, of the same age, who had died in the bathroom after he fell while bathing and broke his neck. I still remember it clearly because we (my dad and I) had to wait in the hospital for about an hour and I was really nervous by the time we could visit him. I ran away in panic from the morgue in the hospital, horrified by the view of my dead nephew. They hadn't succeeded in closing his eyes properly, so one eye was closed and the other eye was still open. And it seemed like he was looking at me with this one, lifeless eye. So I left the room, shocked with this view. When I got in the corridor, there was a man whose half face and neck where covered with a horrible birthmark. At that particular moment, it scared the hell out of me.
So that was my first experience with a dead person, and that really gave me a scare.

I ended up sending a colleague from the office to attend the autopsy, because at the last moment I was too anxious to go myself. The only dead persons I saw later in my life were my parents, after they deceased in the hospital.

I came across more cases where unnatural death was involved for my work, but reading about those deaths, and even looking at photographs, however horrific, didn't scare me very much because I was able to objectify all this gruesome stuff (and omit the worst details ;)

Although I'm scared to death about death, I'm also attracted to it. After all, we all have to die. It's not a happy thought, for none of us, but we all hope we will die quietly, without pain and anxiety, in our own bed, while we're sleeping. Or just drop dead somewhere and die instantly, in a flash. Get it over and done with quickly.

But that's not always the case. As a matter of fact, dying can be very traumatic.
And probably few people know this better than a Medical Examiner.
Hospital pathologists perform autopsies only on patients who have died of natural causes. A Medical Examiner investigates traumatic deaths, but also natural deaths when they are sudden or unexpected, and they perform autopsies in order to identify the cause of death (medical reason) and the manner of death, which can be natural, an accident, a homicide, a suicide, an overdose, a therapeutic complication, a medical negligence or of "undetermined etiology" (this translates as "fuck-if-I-know").

Judy Melinek, the author of this book, writes about her experiences during her 2-year fellowship as a forensic pathologist at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).
She didn't start off wanting to be a forensic pathologist. She wanted to be a surgeon and heal people. But she quitted her surgery residency because she wasn't happy with the highly demanding training.
She ended up loving her work as a pathologist, as she's happy to learn something new about the human body every day. But she also loves the non-medical aspects of the job ; the counseling of families, collaborating with detectives, testifying in court.
She loves her task of performing the last and most thorough physical exam a person will ever have and figuring out what went wrong in the body.
This love for her work shines through on every page of this book.

Her book is a dead honest testimony of her work. Each body tells a story, she says, and she shares these stories with us, readers.

There's the miserable story of a man, freezing to death ;
The story of a man rescued from a fire in his home, only to die three hours later ;
The story of a pregnant woman who died after a hit-and-run car accident ;
The story of a man with an eggshell skull fracture ;
The sudden death of a schizophrenic woman ;
A young man struck by lightning ;
Stories of drug abuse ;
A floater ;
Several homicides ;
Several suicides ;
A case of anthrax poisoning ;
Unsettling stories of the handling of the remains from the 9/11 victims ;
A couple of cases of death as a result of medical or surgical intervention and
a case of medical screwup.

These stories are engagingly told and are sometimes really witty, for instance the case of the "cable guy" sometimes heartbreaking, but always captivating.

It's a very unique and personal book, and I highly recommend it.

January 2, 2016
I am so enjoying this book. The author has this strangely cheery tone. She loves her job and the corpses and loves especially discussing really bad wounds and how the people (whom she generally addresses by their first names) got them. Very odd. Maybe this is how professional pathologists and other forensic professionals really are and they are just kind of serious and sad in front of us "civilians".
Profile Image for Carole.
489 reviews109 followers
February 24, 2020
Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell is a fascinating look into the world of a New York City medical examiner. Melinek hits the ground running in her new position examining victims of suicide, accidents, homicide and all forms of violent deaths. She also visits scenes where the bodies have been found. The book is written with a sense of dark humour, but is not offensive or disrespectful of the deceased that find their way to her examining table. Major events in NYC are depicted such as 9/11. The book demonstrates that the life of a medical examiner is not as easy or glamorous as we see repeatedly on tv or film. It is difficult, painstaking work that most of us can only imagine. Though the subject matter is serious, Dr. Melinek has written an enthralling account of the work she does. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,559 reviews2,312 followers
July 25, 2017
Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, T.J. Mitchell, Tanya Eby (Narrator) is a terrific audio book I picked up from the library! Wow! I have been a RN all my life and now retired but those faint of heart may not be able to read this. It is a bit detailed at what a medical examiner really does for a living and not the TV version. I was fascinated and horrified at some of the things that came through, maybe not at the bodies but what people do to people or what people will do to get out of work. This only covers the time she is at New York but it is during that time that the World Trade Center is hit. The tragic and gruesome chapters there were jarring. This is a book I am glad I came across. None of the details of the work bothered me having seen so much in my life as a nurse but just want to warn those with stomachs weaker than mine to be warned. Great book, hope everyone that can read it, will. It is the audio version and the narrator was perfect for this book, spot on!
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,028 followers
June 19, 2015
A very good book that's guaranteed to ruin CSI for you. (I quit watching years ago.) She does a great job describing what a busy city morgue is like. How she manages to wait for months for paperwork, deals with the crazed public, overworked police, & more just popped so realistically. A 'rush' on a tox screen meant only waiting a week, while a month wasn't unusual. She had to balance knowing part of the picture with releasing the body to relatives while accurately assessing the sort of death it was. Far too often, she only knows half the story & has to move on. Sometimes she comes in on the second half.

Her statistics on suicides & attempts were interesting. IIRC, men manage to kill themselves 3 times as often as women, but women make 3 times as many attempts. They're just not very good at it, while guys seem to be good at it even when they don't mean to be. Yet more proof that the sexes are equal, but certainly not the same.

How a death certificate is filled out & why was somewhat different than I thought. What constitutes accidental death, homicide, & medical misadventure was interesting. There were far fewer murders than I thought there would be, but some of the stories were pretty horrific. She does a good job describing what she could determine & what she couldn't. Fascinating.

Her husband & co-writer T.J. Mitchell must be quite a guy. The chapter on her work during 9/11 & some of the stories she brought home would have had me hovering like a helicopter. I loved the way he supported her.

She could certainly cuss like a sailor at times. Can't say as I blame her. Not a lot of it in the book, but she certainly didn't clean anything up for the squeamish. Her descriptions were accurate & sometimes quite grotesque. Probably not a good book to read during lunch.

She dwells a bit too much on her father's suicide. While I learned quite a bit the first time she mentioned it, by the end of the book, I was pretty tired of hearing about it.

Overall, very well read & a good book. It didn't seem all that long for all that it covered. Highly recommended.

20150619 - I just had to add a link to a Cracked.com article:
"We Light Your Scrotum On Fire: 6 Realities Of The Morgue"
Read at your own risk. Cracked is generally accurate & nasty.
Profile Image for Eva Celeste.
196 reviews14 followers
October 3, 2014
3.5 stars. The memoirs of a forensic pathologist during the years of her fellowship, which placed her in NYC during the September 11 terrorist attack, helping to tag, bag, and attempt to identify the remains of victims from the WTC (as well as seeing an anthrax victim, and helping autopsy victims of a infamous plane crash.) It was co-written by her husband, who has an English degree from Harvard (more about that later).

Disclaimer: I am a medical doctor, but I am a geriatric psychiatrist. I had to attend autopsies as part of my medical school curriculum, and since we get all the questionable deaths in the state of New Mexico at our Office of the Medical Investigator, I had the privilege of seeing 1 natural death, 3 homicides, and 3 suicides, including one "decomp", on the day I was there. I also was informed there was a bag of bones someone had found in a barn they thought might be human, and attended a brain cutting where the brain of a 22 week gestation fetus was sliced, as well as a man who had a fungal infection that was easily visible in many of the slices.

So, I have some context for picturing the stuff she's talking about in this book. (Although she talks about how respectful they are with the deceased's testicles....that must vary from location to location, since in one of the suicides I saw that was clearly a gun shot wound to the head, the pathologist still removed both testicles and sliced them up completely. Anyway. Minor point.)

To end the disclaimer, I thought autopsies were pretty disgusting. I respect what forensic pathologists do, but I have no illusions about the nitty-gritty of autopsies.

That said, I thought she did a great job describing for the lay person what an autopsy is like, what the point of it is, the legal implications of the death determination, etc. And she certainly had a lot of fascinating cases and unusual experiences. The book is very readable and, if you're OK with icky, often quite entertaining and thought-provoking.

My critcisms of the book are basically two- first, that it really does read as if it were written by two people, yet always in the first person singular, which made it feel kind of awkwardly constructed to me. It's always the author speaking, but it feels like she would write up an interesting case she saw, then her husband would come behind and add the finishing English major touches to take it from being too much physician speak and more accessible to the general reader. "Ummm, hon, that part was great, but we're kind of going to alienate the readers if we don't throw in a warm, humanistic anecdote right about now to soften the part about the maggots eating the guy's eyeballs." I can't be sure that's how it was or how much of the writing and editing he did, but based on the different tones of certain sections of the book, I get the feeling he did a lot of work- I mean, he's essentially listed as a coauthor.

Secondly, the author is certainly more than entitled to personal feelings and reactions to all of the experiences she had. However, she herself goes to great pains to emphasize the necessity of objectivity when speaking as a physician, and not rushing to judgment. As a physician who works with mentally ill patients, I want to emphasize that it is *not* the consensus of the medical community that people who commit suicide are selfish, which the author states she believes over and over again. I understand that she feels that way ("It's a goddamned selfish act, suicide, if you ask me" "He was sober. I couldn't blame drugs. I could only and still blame [her father]") and as I said, she is entitled to her feelings, including anger toward her father.

I just wish that when writing this book, she had gone to greater lengths to separate out her feelings about the suicide of her father as an individual from her knowledge about mental illness as a physician and scientist. There is a lot of research on suicide out there, and a lot of correlations between certain risk factors and completed or attempted suicides, and I have never seen any studies correlating levels of selfishness with suicidality (not really sure how you'd conduct such a study, but I digress). I'll just stop there because this is not the forum for reviewing the latest research into the causes and prevention of suicide, but suffice it to say that judging and shaming people who are having suicidal ideation by telling them how "selfish" they are is unlikely to prevent a single person suffering from depression from killing themselves.

I mean, she passes harsher judgment upon people- especially fathers of teenage girls- who commit suicide than she does on a woman who murders her 4 year old, drug traders who torture someone and garrot them, or terrorists who commit mass murder or mail anthrax to innocent people. The lashing out against suicides was the antithesis of the objective, accepting tone of the rest of the book, and it was pretty jarring. You can try to empathize with a child abuser or crack addict, but no mercy for suicidal people? Ouch.

Overall a decently written and engaging book for any reader interested in the topic.
Profile Image for Debbie "DJ".
352 reviews398 followers
June 29, 2016
Can I just say OMG!

I learned a lot about exactly what a forensic pathologist does, and let me just say again, OMG!

Judy Melinek details every sort of disease and injury possible in a human body. Her account of her very worst case almost had me doubled over, but I was also fascinated. Hmm, not sure what this says about me!

I've got to mention her account of 9/11 as she was one of the pathologists involved in trying to identify all the bodies. Her details and descriptions were more horrifying than anything I have ever read. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but truly captivating!
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,603 reviews2,575 followers
September 30, 2014
If you, like me, have a morbid fascination with the mechanics and aftermath of death (see The Removers by Andrew Meredith), you should love this book. Melinek is a forensic pathologist whose father committed suicide – perhaps an early source of her obsession with dead bodies. An exchange with her husband (co-writer T.J. Mitchell) early on gives a flavor of her macabre tone: “‘We even call it an “eggshell skull fracture.” Isn’t that cool?’ ‘No,’ T.J. replied, suddenly ashen. ‘No, it isn’t.’ I’m not a ghoulish person. I’m a guileless, sunny optimist, in fact.”

Over her two years with New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 2000-2002, Melinek performed 262 autopsies, 27 of them on homicides. Regarding bullet wounds, she writes: “Fishing around inside a dead guy for a little chunk of jagged metal that can cut right through my gloves and skin is one workplace challenge I wish I didn’t face.” The Worst Way to Die that she ever observed (because people do persist in asking her the question) was a guy thrown down a manhole – he basically steamed alive; his organs and blood vessels all cooked solid, like sausage meat.

Most notably, Melinek spent eight months identifying 9/11 remains at NYC tent stations. Passersby wouldn’t have known that those lines of trailers all held bodies – or, rather, partial bodies: “Truck One held whole bodies; Truck Two, bodies that were not complete; Truck Three, body parts; and Truck Four held fragments.” She also had one case towards the beginning of the anthrax outbreak.

Only once did my curiosity shade into disgust, and that was with this passage on household pets: “Your faithful golden retriever might sit next to your dead body for days, starving, but the tabby won’t. Your pet cat will eat you right away, with no qualms at all. Like any opportunistic scavenger, it will start with your eyeballs and lips. I’ve seen the result.” I certainly had cause to look askance at my cat after that.

Many people’s interest will have been piqued by forensics dramas on TV, but bear in mind that this is more House than CSI: blackly humorous writing about the human body, including some medical whodunits. “Mine is a gruesome job, but for a scientist with a love for the mechanics of the human body, a great one.” Melinek largely avoids jargon and doctor-speak, making this a very reader-friendly, enjoyable memoir.

In the end, I was left with just two questions: How much did her stay-at-home dad husband contribute? And why did she wait so long before publishing this book? The 2001 material is intriguing, but starts to seem dated. (Perhaps she waited over a decade to let the pain of 9/11 become less raw?) In any case, better late than never.
Profile Image for Krystin | TheF**kingTwist.
466 reviews1,729 followers
September 15, 2022
Book Blog | Bookstagram

Dr. Judy Melinek – amazing human being and the most badass bitch I’ve read about it since I can’t even remember when – takes you on a journey through the first two years of her career after she started a forensic pathology fellowship at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City.

This is chock-full of compelling stories, autopsies and the unique characters surrounding her at work. Dr. M makes pathology more fun and more humbling than any TV show has ever managed. And she does it by simply being honest. Honest about the struggles, the completely gross-out moments, the heartbreaking moments and the frustrating ones.

She talks about how the uterus of a pregnant woman ejected from her body after a plane crash. She talks about a man who died from complications due to his penile implant. She talks about the constant phone calls from parents who would beg her to change the cause of death on a death certificate because they just couldn’t accept that their child had willingly done drugs and overdosed. And she talks about the work she did during 9-11.

That section of the book was the shortest, but it was the most powerful for me. Dr. M and a team of pathologists worked for endless hours trying to piece together the identities of those who passed at the twin towers.

It really shed light on the work that officials did and the mental toll it took on them. I admittedly never thought about the medical/pathology side of that event.

Dr. M explains how sometimes all they had to work with to identify a victim was a hand or a wedding ring with an engraving. There were so many bodies or just body parts, that they would be delivered to the pathologists on construction trucks and there was so little space to store everything that the bodies were kept in the trucks instead of pathology coolers.

Omg, and then there was anthrax! She was even involved in an anthrax attack!


You know, in a totally tragic kind of way. I’m not crazy.

From the medical and science side to the human side where she councils families and is a shoulder to cry on, down to the legal side of working with law enforcement and testifying in court, this was a super insightful and fulfilling read. I have nothing but praise for the woman behind the words.

If you have any interest whatsoever in forensic science, read this book!

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ | 5 stars.
Profile Image for Carol.
1,370 reviews2,136 followers
December 26, 2014
If you want a GREAT Halloween read, what better place to start than in a spooky smelly morgue with dead bodies everywhere. Forensic Pathologists study the causes and effects of human diseases and injury in this UNPUTDOWNABLE non-fiction novel that I found extremely interesting, informative and, at times, SCARY AS HELL! It had me thinking about what I put in my body for sustenance, checking out the whites of my eyes and worrying about occasional slightly swollen ankles.

Be forewarned this book is not for those with a weak constitution as there are very graphic descriptions of numerous autopsies and real life accident and murder scenes.....some that will break your heart, and others that will give you the creeps; AND if you want to know the worst way to die a pathologist has ever seen, it too will be described here.

Some explanations of the mechanics of the human body are truly remarkable, and the clues pathologists find hidden in a cadaver are quite amazing, but (being a cat lover and owner) there is one comparison I will NEVER EVER forget.....

After reading this well-written and enlightening novel, I have a new respect for Pathologists everywhere as I have always wondered why and how they can deal with cadavers day after day, and that answer is here too......to help the living.......and, last but not least, I must end by saying that the portion of this book relating to the treatment of the victims of 9-11 was pretty hard to take, but written in a respectful and heartfelt manner. (as was the entire book)

Highly recommend this fascinating debut, and hope to see more from this author(s).

Profile Image for Valerity (Val).
955 reviews2,741 followers
December 22, 2018
This was a fascinating audiobook written by a woman doctor as she goes to New York to complete her forensic pathology training. She moves there with her husband TJ and young son Daniel and begins her work at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. I became so engrossed in listening to the different cases, that I ended up staying up all night listening to the entire thing.

I try not to read too much of the hype info before I get into the book, so I wasn’t aware of the 2 disasters that she worked on in the two years she worked there, plus the anthrax thing. It was mind-blowing the experiences she had in her time there and the amount she grew as a professional. I found this to be a very moving and amazing look at a medical examiner’s office and work behind the scenes as to what they do and how they operate. She had some great teachers and mentors there that gave her invaluable advice. I just love this kind of book.

My BookZone blog review:
Profile Image for L.A. Starks.
Author 11 books653 followers
July 20, 2015
Dr. Melinek and her husband, T.J. Mitchell, have written a superb book about Dr. Melinek's experience as a forensic pathologist in NYC.

She discusses the horrible and hectic time right after 9-11 and gives experienced insight into the many cases--including similarities and differences--on which she's worked.

This book is a valuable reference that contains many movingly true stories.
Profile Image for Figgy.
678 reviews219 followers
May 27, 2019
Featured on my 2014 favourites list!

Actual Rating 4.5

I like reading a wide variety of books. Fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, biographies, science, history... You name it!

But there’s no denying that some are a lot easier to read than others.

While I love reading about people’s lives and absorbing facts, I’d be kidding myself if I thought those books took the same amount of time or effort as a well written novel. No matter how well written said non-fiction book is in and of itself.

Working Stiff was different.

It could be the fact that I always wanted to get into forensics, or my own morbid fascination with the things people do to one another. It could be that it was written in a way that is accessible to the layperson, and that the grouping similar manners of death led to fewer chapters and a very smooth read. Whatever the cause, I devoured this book!

The rest of this review can be found here!
Profile Image for Kaora.
569 reviews281 followers
April 26, 2023
I read this as part of my 2015 goal to read more non-fiction books.

I think I am off to a great start!

Judy Melinek is a medical examiner in training after she drops out of her surgery residency after collapsing during one of her 130 hour workweeks. She uproots her family and moves to New York, beginning her training two months before September 11th.

Nobody cares about when you're alive, but lots of people take interest when you are dead.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I expected some good advice.

Don't jaywalk. Use your seatbelt when you drive. Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise. Watch your weight. If you are a smoker, stop right now. Guns put holes in people.

I also expected to be scared A LOT by the various ways you could suddenly wind up on an autopsy table. And while she does touch on one of the worst ways in her opinion to die, most of her encounters with the dead were easily avoidable.

Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.

And I expected to learn some fascinating and disgusting things about the human body. Like how hairless shins with a variety of other things is a symptom of heart failure.

But all expectations aside hearing the struggle of balancing being a mother, a wife and a woman who deals with death daily quickly made this an engrossing read. It isn't all about the bodies. It is also about the woman behind the bodies. Holding the scalpel.

However the chapter on being a pathologist in New York during the events of September 11, 2001 was probably the toughest part of this book to read and ultimately the most powerful. I'd recommend this for that part alone. You didn't hear a lot about the medical examiners after the events, but ultimately they gave a lot of relief to a lot of families.

I am just glad I didn't read this before my son's "minor surgery". Or I would have been a wreck.

Minor surgery is surgery someone else has.
Profile Image for Erica.
1,331 reviews435 followers
December 14, 2015
Oh my gosh, I enjoyed this to bits.

But first, I must relate my story regarding this book. I'm going to put it under a spoiler tag in case you want to skip it. It's long. As are most of my boring stories.

I don't remember my specific thoughts. I know I wrote notes but I can't find them. Frustrating.
However, I do know that I often took the loooong way home during this period so that I could listen longer to the CD.
I know that it made me feel more aware while driving because of all the stories of How They Died and I didn't want to be a traffic accident story (by the by, the co-author of this book is Judy's husband and he, too, is delightful, as I found while tweeting about this book)(I'm a braggart, aren't I?)
I was fascinated by her trajectory into forensic pathology and a medical examiner career and even more intrigued by the cases that made an impact on her worldview/knowledge/compassion/etc.
I will say, though, I had a hard time listening to her involvement with identifying and caring for the remains recovered from the World Trade Center terror site. I've never been able to entirely process that day and its aftermath and I wasn't even there nor did I personally know anyone involved. Still, it's a difficult topic for me so I was overly sensitive for that entire part of the story. I'm not saying it's bad. I'm not saying it's poorly-written. Neither of those statements would be true. I'm saying I personally had a hard time coping with that information. Regardless, I wanted to hug Dr. Melinek's face off the whole time because what a big, important, hard thing to do every single day for days on end. See? I can't even express what I'm feeling now and I listened to this two months ago. Moving on.

This wife/husband author team strike a beautiful balance, artistically. The stories are real, but they're not overly-technical, there's not a lot of med-speak that will confuse and bewilder (and bore) the common reader. The writing is compassionate but often amusing and all in a conversational tone. It reads like an autobiography but it doesn't drag and it doesn't focus so much on the author, more on her experiences and why things happen the way they do. It's accessible, it's interesting, and it discusses something that's still somewhat taboo in our culture but something that needs to be discussed nonetheless and it does so with grace, humor, and charm, namely: death and the bodies it leaves behind.

I strongly recommend this to people who like reading about death OR who are scared of death, as well as people who like medical dramas or true crime stories, those who enjoy biographies...actually, pretty much anyone who isn't looking for a ghoulish, overly-jargonized, super-in-depth medical memoir/texbook because it's none of those things.
Profile Image for Jim.
365 reviews90 followers
March 16, 2021
I'll never forget the first autopsy I attended. I was in the forensic lab in Toronto with a group of fellow students who could conceivably, in future, be required to attend autopsies for investigative purposes. We were gathered around a (thankfully) fairly fresh corpse when a young female technician arrived to subject the body to its final indignities. This attractive woman was clad in a lab smock and wore a face shield. What I remember best about her is that she had spotless white rubber boots on which she had used a black marker to draw macabre designs of tombstones, ghosts, and skulls. This morgue maiden proceeded to remove the top of this chap's skull with her face scant inches from her work, all the while vigorously chewing gum and smiling delightedly. I'll never forget her, although I'm sure she's retired by now, and I always wondered how a person can work in this field of endeavor and go home to a spouse and kids.

Judy Melinek is just such a person, apparently able to go home to a stable family environment after mucking about in body cavities and weighing organs to earn her daily bread. She spent a couple of years as a rookie forensic pathologist in NYC (start at the top) and this book is her account of how she learned the ropes.

This memoir grabs you and holds you from the very first page. While corpses have one thing in common, which is the state of being dead, every body has its own tale to tell about how the decedent achieved the state of deadness. Usually the cause of death is obvious, like a witnessed plunge from a precipice, but often the pathologist has to consult with police regarding the circumstances pertaining to some victim's demise. It can be like a detective story without the BS. Melinek recounts some of her most interesting cases for the reader, and these accounts are far more interesting than all the rubber corpses you will encounter on TV.

One thing that endeared Melinek to me is that she hasn't lost any of her humanity. She treats the dead with respect and fields calls from bereaved relatives. This last took me by surprise because how do you even get to talk to a public servant on the phone any more? But Melinek patiently and compassionately consults with these people, often on repeat occasions. She truly goes beyond what the job strictly requires. As luck would have it, she was in NYC when the towers fell. Her work in the subsequent weeks would have overwhelmed most people...it makes for some fascinating reading.

This book is as close to perfect as a memoir can get. Thankfully, Melinek didn't include any photos.

Profile Image for Kazen.
1,307 reviews296 followers
November 26, 2020
November 2020: Upping this to four stars. It has stuck with me more than any other medical examiner/forensic pathologist memoir I've read.
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."

Stunned silence.

"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.
Profile Image for Mariah Roze.
1,019 reviews921 followers
October 16, 2017
I read this book for the local My Favorite Murder Book Club and loved it. Its about a rookie forensic pathologist.

Judy joined the world of death investigation, performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, and counseling grieving relatives. This book chronicles Judy's training. She shared her firsthand account of the events of September 11 and the crash of American Airlines flight 587.

This was a super interesting book! I learned so much information on positions that I wasn't very educated on.
Profile Image for Scott.
1,746 reviews123 followers
February 24, 2019
"Taceant colloquia. Effugiat risus. Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae." -- posted at the lobby wall of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York (*translation: "Let conversation cease. Let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living.")

After graduating from UCLA's medical school in the mid-90's Dr. Judy Melinek began a surgical residency in her husband's hometown of Boston. After a year she soured on the almost-unrealistic demands and fatigue that came with such a position. She then switched to forensic pathology, and spent four years as a resident at UCLA before accepting a position in New York City's Office of Chief Medical Examiner ("New York OCME was the place to pursue [the career]") in the summer of 2001.

Dr. Melinek gives the reader a vivid front-row seat to her experiences as an assistant medical examiner, detailing the procedures and several of the unique cases she was involved in during her two years at NY-OCME. She dispels some of the myths / inaccuracies (such as "everyone thinks 'murder' when you say you work as a medical examiner, but [actual] homicides are rare") usually shown in TV crime series. It is presented in a straightforward and comprehensible manner, while she also displays a steady sense of humor (also shared by her numerous and dependable colleagues) and often mentions her loving family, and both sound critical to have to work in such as position.

The approximate last quarter of the book focuses on her office's work in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent, long-running investigation. Though this was of course one of America's worst days in recent memory, the important work performed by Dr. Melinek and OCME spanned several months. Like one of the review blurbs said, it was indeed "morbidly fascinating" about how the medical examiner's office dealt with the sudden and massive influx of bodies and body parts.

I understand that Melinek's next project (again with husband / co-author TJ Mitchell) is a "medical examiner - detective fiction series." This should give Patricia Cornwell some cause for concern. :-)
Profile Image for Liz.
413 reviews41 followers
March 10, 2018
WOW...just WOW!!! I did not think I would enjoy this as much as I did...it being non-fiction and all..I always love a good juicy story! But this..THIS....is all of that and more! Descriptive stories and backgrounds of Dr. Melinek's cases kept me turning the pages and bf I knew it I really couldn't put it down! This is definitely NOT for the weak stomachs..I loss my appetite a few times throughout the book...BUT..I would not change that for anything! I LEARNED SO MUCH! The amount of detail and time in which Dr. Melinek spent on these cases in her book was just right! There is a chapter on 9/11...(yes, she worked at the NYC Medical Examiners office during that time) it is shocking and horribly tragic but really puts into perspective what they would not report about on television...and for good reason! I knew it was bad but the stories she shares coming to her from the "pile" are earth shattering.

I HIGHLY recommend this book. 5+ stars. I only wish it was longer and she could've dove into more of her cases!!
Profile Image for Wendy.
1,640 reviews557 followers
September 6, 2014
Utterly Fascinating!
"Working Stiff" is the memoir of Judy Melinek, M.D. who spent two years training and working as a Forensic Pathologist at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Her job is to determine cause of death and she discusses many of her cases, including murders, suicides, accidents, natural death and more.
She was part of the 9/11 recovery team and gives a heart-rending account of the process of finding human remains, categorizing them and returning confirmation to the families anxiously awaiting news of their loved one.
If you are curious, like me, and can handle blood, guts and carnage then this extremely informative and captivating book is not to be missed.
Profile Image for Hil.
29 reviews
February 25, 2015
It was fascinating to learn about the life of a medical examiner, especially one who was working in New York City on September 11th, 2001. Dr. Melinek does a great job of describing the process and investigation that goes into determining cause and manner of death. I think many people assume that the medical examiner's determination is based solely on what is revealed by the autopsy, but Melinek also describes the process of interviewing friends, family and emergency personnel to determine the circumstances surroundings someone's life and death. Her explanation of how autopsies are conducted and what can be determined from the state of the body is written clearly, without too much medical jargon that might make it difficult to understand.

My one complaint about Working Stiff was that Dr. Melinek has very strong opinions on suicide, describing it as a "selfish act" more than once. Her own father took his life when Judy Melinek was only thirteen and his suicide was devastating to her. I realize that everyone who has experienced the suicide of a loved one deals with it in different ways and clearly Dr. Melinek has tried to go out of her way to console the families of suicide victims in the course of her work, but I still found some of her statements a bit harsh and jarring.
Profile Image for Diabolica.
422 reviews52 followers
May 29, 2019
Hands down I think this is one of the best books I've ever read containing factual medical information. Despite her introduction, preparing readers for a disaster, I was launched into stories of each autopsy and their medical counterparts and Melinek's own takeaways from each case.

I've never had a novel change the career I'd wanted to pursue, but this book has definitely caused me to start thinking about my options. Melinek's descriptions are true and accurate, but by no means are they boring. Not to mention, she does not skip out on the gorier bits about her job: the smell, the nauseating maggots, and the grief that can come with some cases. Melinek does an amazing job of capturing her job, and its effect on her personal life too.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,275 reviews558 followers
May 20, 2015
Is this non-fiction recital of two years' cases of performing NYC autopsies for the Coroner's designations perfect? Of course not. But it is blunt, honest, and Judy Melinek also resists all the usual Doctor syndrome aspects of hiding a personality, bias, feelings of an individual- behind the badge and highly authoritarian onus of the M.D. that is behind her name.

Rarely am I tempted to do a synopsis, rather than a reaction. For this one I am sorely tempted to tell you far more than just my take. Some of these chapters are absolutely unique in SPECIFIC information. Stated too within medical and official jargon, and then often translated for her layman's tale. She tells us what she sees. She tells us what her job is. It is not what many TV shows or court room scenes leave you to believe it is. She is not a lawyer, or a Homicide Detective. Although she constantly detects and she does appear in court on some occasions. Her onus first and foremost is to put one of six things on a legal and official death certificate. NYC has six categories only, and the full explanation is terse, as well. Some states or countries have 5 or 7. It often takes months to fill that one line.

They are: Suicide, Homicide, Disease, Accident, Medical Complication/Interaction, or Undecided/Undetermined. That's it.

Before the book is finished, you will read of some few cases that are being determined over months of time between THREE of these categories. Determination between not just two, but three, all strong possibilities before the final decision is put on the Death Certificate line. And often times grand jury or some other jurisdiction is waiting for that line to be printed. Because timing of demise, situations of opposing or serendipity causes, and physical proofs may oppose themselves in category or clues when their origin or sequential consequence order is unknown.

When she finds a real zebra amongst the horses, she proclaims "Isn't that cool!" and tells you why. Many readers may not parse with her interjections. Or become highly offended. But reading what these hours include, as far as I am concerned she can say anything she wants to, and in any mood or tone at that.

This job has been rather glorified on TV. And you hear lots of details about body parts or descriptions of the testing done on them, but none are in the degree that you hear about here in this book. If you don't care for the medical and intense detail, this survey is not for you.

She was working during 9/11, fairly new in fact. She leaves that portion of her time in NYC for nearer to the end of the book. There are good reasons for it. I knew with my head and my heart, but I didn't REALLY know. You know after reading her sorting lines, blocks of refrigerated trucks. She also had near the end of her stint, a 250 plus person air crash (all fatal plus 5 more on the ground). By comparing those two events' autopsy results, you understand what is missing in one and not the other.

She covers too, not only the exact issues and context of her own health and life that with some serendipity switched her surgeon's role into one that was more conducive to sleeping and a family life. But also the special sense she has of solving hard problems that are often quite different or original biology. If a doctor is dead tired, fainting sick and not able to remain standing for 40 hours straight, there is always a better way to practice. And "The patient will still be dead tomorrow, and they don't mind waiting."

Others warn readers who may have queasy stomachs. I would warn far more to those who want a PC formula "nice-nice" emotive condolence for life's meanest and grimmest occasions. This is not a lady who seeks to condole first. She often surmounts to do just that visceral connection and much more. But she is not phony in calling a situation what it is NOT in order to help grievers rationalize a cozier self acceptance. Many might well be offended. To me it was absolutely refreshing. And also most highly trustworthy for ACTUAL good intent and concern, at that. Give me a Doctor like this rather than one who mouths all the platitudes.

She is the daughter of a brilliant doctor who was a suicide at 38. Those suicide cases she reviews were worth the reading of this book alone. Because I have been one of those people who have witnessed the exact kinds of events she details. The train jump, the building jump. I never go to a place of open balconies or 20 floor atriums without thinking about it. People like myself who have seen them are forever affected. Affect, as in feelings. You can't erase it. It doesn't look like the movies or chewy horror film special effects. That's usually because it hits all kinds of things on the way down for one thing. Almost always, it is not all there.

You will learn why 7 bullet holes require different tracking methods and why one or two is so much easier. And why nearly the first rule right now in autopsy is taking off all the piercing and attached decoration, noting scars, tattoos in great detail, sometimes with drawings.

This book taught me more about how a corpse could reveal as completely bloodless (rare occurrence with a certain instant velocity death- the bone marrow absorbs all the blood), how a blood transfusion can cause an antibody crisis/ fatal reaction (blood hook up transfer starts- bad back pain instantly- yell like hell)and several other exact factual context situations that I had never read upon any detail before this book. She doesn't cut out the depth either for their "solving" situation.

Anyone who is depressed, lives in a city, drives a car, thinks suicide is a way to make things easier for the survivors, or is going to die. All of those people should read this book.


"Let conversation cease. Let Laughter flee. This is the place where Death delights to help the living."
Profile Image for jenny✨.
563 reviews803 followers
March 18, 2021
a fascinating glimpse into the life and routines of a medical examiner in new york city! melinek's anecdotes don't hold back; the reader is not spared any gory details, from car accidents and poisonings to medical misadventures and, of course, murder.

of especial note was chapter 10 (entitled "DM01", or the letter-number tag that marked unidentified bodies devastated by 9/11). reading this had me near tears—it's brutal and moving, the scale of tragedy particularly visceral when told by a medical examiner on the front lines.

i'm rating this 3 stars because 1) the audiobook narrator absolutely BUTCHERED any non-american accents ☠️; and 2) the book assumes a presumptuous, authoritative tone that grated on me. this was especially problematic when melinek vehemently asserts that suicide is "selfish" (“It’s a goddamned selfish act, suicide, if you ask me.”).
Profile Image for Aura.
758 reviews64 followers
February 19, 2020
Dr. Melinek tells a fascinating tale of her days as medical examiner in NYC. I am not great fan of crime and forensic shows on TV. This book is not like that but more about the details of the daily work of medical doctors in the morgue. What happened? What actually caused the death of a person? Dr. Melinek details in a clinical way how an autopsy is detective work on a dead body. I dont know if it is something I needed to know but it was utterly fascinating to find out the worst way someone died and also the funniest cause of death she ever encountered. I enjoyed reading this a lot and in a strange way it was not macabre.
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