Forensic pathologist is no regular ‘Working Stiff’

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Dr. Judy Melinek can’t watch “CSI,” “Bones” and the myriad other medical examiner (ME) shows that have exploded on to television. “I end up yelling at the TV and throwing things,” Melinek, 45, a forensic pathologist for Alameda County who also testifies in cases throughout the country, said in a telephone interview from her San Francisco home.

In the past, she’s laughed herself silly at the “female with bedroom eyes, stiletto heels and a lot of cleavage [who] shows up at a gory, atmospherically ill-lit murder scene,” Melinek writes in her new memoir, “Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner” (Scribner), which she penned, in part, to debunk myths about her profession. What most irks her is that the diagnoses offered by these sultry TV doctors are often “immediate and ironclad.”

In real life, Melinek can toil for months to solve a case and is, at times, stumped. She works under bright lights (she wants those TV MEs to turn on the lights, already), with instruments such as a soup ladle she purchased at a housewares store for scooping up body fluids. And she turns up to work in unsexy but sensible flat shoes and a windbreaker.

Not that her memoir isn’t a lively (and at times gruesome) account of working in a busy city morgue during her training with the New York medical examiner’s office from 2001 to 2003 — including a grueling year identifying remains of victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

With equal parts compassion and mordant humor, Melinek — whose book has been optioned by Warner Bros. for a possible TV drama — writes of a hipster who was fatally struck by lightning during a rooftop party; a crystal meth addict who, after locking himself out of his apartment, climbed on the roof, tied a cable around his chest and tried to rappel onto his balcony, with predictably bad results; and a restaurant worker who, in a freak accident, suffocated when an egg roll machine exploded and pinned him under the apparatus’ gigantic metal cylinder.

Melinek can tell you that while your dog will sit by your dead body for days, starving, your pet cat will have no qualms about immediately eating you.

She resists the often-asked question, “What’s the worst way to die you’ve ever seen?” But when pressed, she’ll describe the bartender who was assaulted by someone who thought the victim had made a pass at his girlfriend, and pushed the victim 18 feet down a manhole into scalding water, where he remained fully conscious as he boiled to death.

“Strangers at cocktail parties love to ask how I deal with the rotting bodies, the stench of death, the maggots,” Melinek writes. “The answer:  You get used to it.”

“You have to suppress your emotional response or you wouldn’t be able to do your job,” she writes. “Most important, the dead body is not my only patient. The survivors are the ones who really matter. I work for them, too.”

Yet there have been cases that have devastated Melinek emotionally: a 19-week fetus she discovered inside a young pregnant woman who was hit by a car, a case she eventually proved was vehicular manslaughter; a body bag filled with small children who had died in an airplane crash; and a firefighter, a victim of the World Trade Center attacks, who wore the same kind of wedding ring as Melinek’s husband, T.J. Mitchell, her “Working Stiff” co-author.  “I … stooped down on my haunches and started sobbing,” she writes of that case.

In an interview, Melinek said she identifies with distraught relatives because she knows intimately what it means to mourn — and not only because her maternal grandparents lost all their relatives in concentration camps during the Holocaust. When Melinek was 13, her father, a 38-year-old psychiatrist, committed suicide by hanging himself from an extension cord in his bathroom in New York City. Melinek said her first response was she couldn’t stop laughing — followed by numbness, then an intense anger at her late father that lingered for decades.

As a girl, she was ordered never to speak of his death, especially to his parents — her grandparents — who had been told that their son had died of a heart attack.

When Melinek first became a forensic pathologist almost 20 years later, she pored over the medical examiner’s report of her father’s death, determining that he had only suffered perhaps for a minute.

Even so, performing autopsies on people who have killed themselves proved traumatic for Melinek, who would mull over the cases at home and even dream about them.

“I’ve since made peace with it,” she said, “but what I tell a lot of suicide victims’ families who say, ‘It just doesn’t make sense,’ is that it’s never going to make sense. Unless you yourself have been suicidal, you just don’t get it.” When relatives are bewildered because their loved one did not leave a suicide note, Melinek — whose father also left no note — informs them that only 10 to 20 percent of suicides do so. She’s also counseled families who have made a shrine to the deceased to put the photographs away, at least for a while, if seeing them proves so distressing that the relatives cannot function.

“One reason I’m drawn to forensics is because I know that my job is helping people through the mourning process; helping them to understand what happened and how to move on to the next step in their grief,” she said.

Melinek was born in Jerusalem and emigrated from Haifa to New York City at the age of 5, when her father was selected for a residency in psychiatry at the Albert Einstein Medical Center; she attended high school at an Orthodox yeshiva, where her mother headed the Hebrew language and literature department. After graduating from Harvard and UCLA medical school, she switched from a residency in surgery to forensic pathology when the former proved so exhausting that she once fainted at the end of a 36-hour shift. Her new field quickly fascinated Melinek, and the journals she kept during her training are what she and Mitchell eventually rewrote into what would become “Working Stiff.”

The book documents in detail how, just two months into her residency in New York, Melinek became one of 30 doctors charged with trying to identify remains of victims of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Over the course of many months, bodies arrived by ambulance, sometimes by the truckloads, in about 20,000 fragments, some only as small as a tooth.

Her memoir goes on to describe her post-traumatic distress in the aftermath of that tragedy; since she had seen the first airplane to hit the World Trade Center as it was flying low over Manhattan, she was terrified for a time at the sight or sound of a low-flying aircraft.

She had overcome those fears by the time she settled into her job in the San Francisco medical examiner’s office two years late. There,  Melinek, the only Jewish doctor on staff, was called upon to confer with Orthodox Jews opposed to an autopsy on religious grounds. She explained to the families that in California, autopsies are required in cases such as a suspected homicide or public-health hazard; however, doctors could perform a less-invasive procedure wherein only the minimum of samples would be taken from the body. MEs would even wipe up blood that flowed during the autopsy to return to the corpse in its body bag.

Jewish values always have informed Melinek’s work. “Because of Judaism’s incredible respect for the dead, I realize how important it is that what I do has meaning, and that we’re not just doing autopsies to defile the body, even though some people accuse us of that,” she said. “We do our work with an incredible purpose — and an incredible amount of
respect.”

Source: Jewish Journal