One of the goals of our retirement community is to encourage people to continue as life-long learners. Retirement doesn’t mean turning off the brain. On the contrary, having more time opens up opportunities to explore new areas of knowledge. Curiosity gives life to old bones. And old brains.
In this retirement center,
opportunities for learning abound. A resident committee dedicates itself to
finding interesting speakers and workshops; this week a professor from the
university across the street is speaking on “Civility in Polarized Times.” A
few weeks ago, a Vietnam vet (and resident of this community) talked from
personal experience on the ongoing emotional trauma war veterans face. The art
committee frequently invites artists to demonstrate their craft. The community
life department organizes outside excursions; in a few weeks those who want can
ride the bus to the Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals of the Pacific Northwest.
And on and on.
And, of course, learning takes
place through books. I’ve been a reader all my life, and retirement gives more time to
read all kinds of books. The retirement community has its own well-used library.
Belonging to a book-discussion group helps with processing what we read.
This past week I’ve been
inhabiting another world, learning about a line of work I only experienced watching
detective/murder movies on TV (not my favorite kind of show—and apparently full
of misinformation). It’s the world of forensic investigative medicine. The
world of autopsies, something I’ve not been interested in. Until now.
The book is a memoir by Judy Melinek, M.D., assisted by her husband, T.J. Mitchell. It’s called Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner (2014). The author tells the story of her two-year internship (2001-2003) in New York City, working in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), the office that investigates homicides, suicides, drug overdoses, and disasters. She describes her role as follows:
A forensic pathologist
is a specialist in the branch of medicine who investigates sudden, unexpected,
or violent deaths by visiting the scene, reviewing medical records, and performing
an autopsy—all while collecting evidence that might be used in court. Like a
clinical pathologist, she has to recognize what everything in the body looks
like, but the forensic pathologist also has to understand how it all works….
The forensic pathologist is the medical profession’s eyewitness to death—answering
all the questions, settling all the arguments, revealing al the mysteries
contained in the human vessel. “One day too late,” my clinical friends like to
At the beginning of the book,
Melinek assures the reader that, “I’m not a ghoulish person. I’m a guileless,
sunny optimist, in fact.” Part of the book is the story of how she journeyed
from surgery to general pathology, finally realizing that forensic pathology challenged
her and gave her the most personal satisfaction. She writes with humor that, “I
didn’t start off wanting to be a forensic pathologist. You don’t say to
yourself in second grade, ‘When I grow up, I want to cut up dead people.’ It’s
not what you think a doctor should do.” But in the end of her professional
search this very role become her calling.
Melinek’s story demonstrates a combination
of objectivity and compassion. Concerning objectivity, she writes that “You
have to suppress your emotional responses or you wouldn’t be able to do your
job. In some ways it’s easier for me, because a dead body really is an object, no longer a person at all. More important, that dead body is not my only
patient. The survivors are the ones who really matter. I work for them too.”
She demonstrates compassion
through the stories of the people that death put on her operating table. The book
is full of stories. The different chapters deal with deaths by poisoning,
violent accidents, homicides, suicides, natural disaster, and man-made
disaster. A chapter is given each, with stories of the people and details of how she went
about her investigations, including details about the autopsies and how she
discovered the secrets the bodies revealed.
It was disturbing reading and I
had to steel myself in parts, practicing objectivity. This was possible because
of Melinek’s obvious love of and respect for the human body and her
fascination with its intricacies, even in a state of decomposition. That combined
with compassion for the subjects of her investigations and their families helped me read my way through the book.
The longest chapter in the book is
titled, “DM01.” That stands for “Disaster Manhattan 2001.” 9/ll. All cases for
identification would be coded DM01-1, DM01-2, and so on. The workers at the OCME were
in shock that day, as was the whole nation, and it soon became clear the
dauting task ahead for the forensic pathologists. OCME headquarters became the
center for the identification of remains from the disaster. Tents were set up
in the street around the building, much like we witnessed during the recent
pandemic. Thirty medical examiners joined the team and they worked 12-hour
shifts around the clock. The work went on for 8 months, with remains being
discovered even after the investigation was officially closed. Melinek
estimates that she had 598 DM01 cases assigned to her. A year after the
disaster, the team had issued 1,389 death certificates, the other 1,344 missing
persons declared dead by judicial decree. The author noted that, “Many families
expressed their gratitude that our office, and the funeral directors who acted
as intermediaries, had helped them to mourn even in the absence of remains to
This gave me an entirely new perspective
on 9/11, just as the whole memoir gave me a new understanding of forensic
Since 2004, Dr. Melinek has carried
on her work in San Francisco where she lives with her husband and two children.
Looking at her life’s work, she writes that
Every day I learn something new
about the human body. I love the work, the science, the medicine. But I also
love the nonmedical aspects of the job—counseling families, collaborating with
detectives, testifying in court. I find I work hardest at these roles, at
speaking for the dead. Every doctor has to cultivate compassion, to learn it
and then practice it. To confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you
have to love the living.