Monday, October 24, 2016

Book Review: Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell, narrated by Tanya Eby (audio)

For a long while, I worried that the description of this book was a bait-and-switch. But she does talk about Sept. 11, it just takes a while to get there.

Judy wasn't hacking it in her surgery rotation in med school. She was falling asleep almost like she had narcolepsy and she once passed out and was admitted to her own hospital, from exhaustion. She really wanted to be a doctor and she liked cutting into people, but she needed a job with better hours. When she'd done a pathology rotation, the head of that department had encouraged her to consider the specialty but she dismissed it out of hand (I imagine it's a second-choice career for most everyone in it. Which doesn't at all mean it's bad—it's just interesting to think about a job that no one wants and who ends up working it successfully.) She went back to her, and ended up with a fellowship to work in NYC. She'd just had a baby and her husband was staying at home to be with the baby and so that they could move whenever Judy's career dictated it, so move they did. She started in the summer of 2001.

The first two-third of the book is all about her learning about different ways people can die. She uses an example case in each one. In many of the cases, she has to work with police to fully determine the cause of death. Occasionally the police work against her as they don't always want to add to their workload with more investigation. Some of the stories were fascinating, such as the couple who were separated and in fact had had the penthouse apartment divided into two separate apartments, and she was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her apartment by her husband—who wasn't supposed to be there. The rich old woman had just cut him out of her will entirely—had he found out? Had he pushed her down the stairs in a fit of rage? Even after Judy found handprints on the woman's back the police still didn't want to question neighbors in the tony building. Don't worry, she talks about the worst possible way to die that she's seen (it involves an open hot water main). And some of the trickier and more interesting cases she worked on in her two years in New York. And just as I was getting fed up and had decided the book had lied about talking about Sept. 11, since so many of the cases she discussed happened afterwards, finally she did get to that. While the day of, as I remember, doctors and nurses rushed to downtown hospitals and people lined up outside of Red Cross locations to donate blood until we were turned away, the real people who ended up doing the brunt of the work, after the firefighters and police and construction workers down at the actual site, were pathologists. Unsung heroes most of us have never thought of. They worked in tents set up outside for months, identifying remains and examining to investigate as best they could, given the circumstances and the often minimal remains. They did things such as finding just a couple of teeth that could be dentally IDed, or finding a trace of nail polish on a toe, in order to help families recover their loved ones. It was harrowing work, but oh so vital.

Dr. Melinek writes easily and openly about her struggles with the job and what she found enjoyable about it. I like doctor memoirs but this one opened my eyes to a different angle, and I truly appreciate that she and other like her are there to find out what happened to those who really can't speak for themselves—the dead. They often tell a story, if you know how to read it. And Dr. Melinek tells a good story, too. (Not for the squeamish though.)

I checked this eaudiobook out of the library via Overdrive.

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