Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, by Judy Melinek, MD, and T.J. Mitchell

Seven stars

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.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: