Warning: this book is not for the faint of stomach. Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, M.D., and T.J. Mitchell goes into detail about the many years of training and hundreds of autopsies that Melinek went through to become a forensic pathologist trained in death investigation. Melinek began as a surgical resident, but during her fellowship, she came to the realization that surgery was not for her. As a result, she switched to forensic pathology, a subject she had always enjoyed in medical school, taking a residency position at UCLA. She and her husband bounced between LA and New York where she eventually took on a year long fellowship commitment at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Background out of the way, I found this book to be a fascinating read. It is slightly gory, I’m not going to lie, as Melinek goes into sometimes graphic detail about the autopsies that she has performed and how they helped shape her as a forensic pathologist. The science that she presents throughout the book as well as the reasons for her becoming a forensic pathologist allow readers to see just why she is able to look at even the most decomposed bodies and the bodies of children in order to do her job. As she repeats throughout the book, it is all about the training. Her training added not necessarily a level of detachment to her work, but instead a level of understanding and skill that allowed her to treat every new case as an opportunity to learn something new about the human body.
Melinek was also working at the OCME when the planes struck on September 11th, so reading her input as her office was tasked with identifying the thousands of victims in the initial eight months after the tragedy was jarring, but at the same time, I was awed at the behind-the-scenes look that readers were granted regarding the rescue and recovery effort, as well as the volunteer and first responders’ stories. This book shines a light on all of the hard work and training that goes in to figuring out the mysteries of our deaths.
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