Hey — You Wanna See a Dead Body?

Working Stiff
By Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

This was an outstanding book. And it was extraordinarily gruesome.

It’s not the first non-fiction book I’ve read about corpses and cadavers and the like; Stiff, by Mary Roach, was another excellent book that explored the different ways that we in the modern world deal with our dead — burial, cremation, preservation, repurposing, and the like. And if you want to include fiction, forget about it: I read a pile of the Kay Scarpetta mystery novels, not to mention all the zombies. And it’s a lot of zombies.

But this book is the first memoir I’ve read by an actual medical examiner (co-authored with her husband, who is a writer), a fully trained pathologist who examines the dead in order to determine how they got that way.

And Dr. Melinek holds nothing back: she describes the procedures (Including how they remove and examine the organs), the tools (Including a butcher knife and a pair of long-handled pruning shears), and the responses: her own as well as those of the victims’ families. It is a detailed, up-close guided tour to the world of the medical examiner.

She talks about gunshot wounds, about stabbings, about poisonings; she talks about drug overdoses; she talks about heart attacks and strokes and TRALI, the incredibly rare syndrome when one receives a blood transfusion with just the wrong sorts of antibodies (Or, as in this case, one has just the wrong antibodies already in the bloodstream when that transfusion happens) and the lungs fill with fluid, causing death within hours. She talks quite a lot about falls and drownings and car accidents.

And she talks about being pregnant, and being a mother; she talks about her career and her marriage; she talks about her attempt to become a surgeon before she settled on pathology. She talks about living in several different cities in pursuit of her goals. She talks, entirely candidly and at length, about her own father’s suicide by hanging at the age of 38, when she was 13.

And yeah: she talks about 9/11. You see, Dr. Melinek began working as a medical examiner in New York City in July of 2001. She was one of the 30 medical examiners that dealt with all of the human remains recovered from the World Trade Center and the subsequent events.

So: if you don’t mind hearing about blood and guts, and perhaps most disturbingly, what happens to the blood and the guts when things go wrong, I think this is definitely a book worth reading. It is honest, it is genuine, it is clear, it is informative. It is really gross. And it is really good.

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