Q&A: A doctor who’s a real working stiff

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Name: Dr. Judy Melinek
Age: 45
City: San Francisco
Position: Forensic pathologist

J.: Let’s start with your job and what it entails.

Dr. Judy Melinek: A forensic pathologist is a doctor who specializes in doing autopsies in cases of sudden, unnatural or violent death. I currently work for the Alameda County Sheriff Coroner’s office.

Dr. Judy Melinek

You’re often in the position of debunking myths about forensics. Can you give some examples?

The most common misconceptions are perpetuated by television dramas, the kind in which the pathologist shows up at a crime scene in stiletto heels and declares the exact time of death down to the minute. In reality, the forensic pathologist at a crime scene wears sensible shoes, is more likely to say “I don’t know” than come to a definitive conclusion early in a case, and will have to wait weeks or even months for most lab results. Wouldn’t make for very exciting television.

You wrote “Working Stiff” with your husband, T.J. Mitchell, based on your training in New York City. It’s a surprisingly lively read, though at times grim and rather graphic. How did the book come about?

I was a big fan of medical memoirs [and] wanted to write a similar book about forensic pathology training, so I kept a personal journal along with my study notes. T.J. and I whittled the stories down, choosing the cases that had taught me something new about forensics, or about human behavior, or about myself.

You were one of 30 doctors tasked with identifying remains after the 9/11 attacks, and you suffered from PTSD as a result. Can you talk about that experience?

In some ways, working on the 9/11 recovery effort was like combat medicine. It was stressful and horrific — and a unique bonding experience for all who were part of it. It was an amazing, expensive and highly coordinated effort by thousands of people across many professions and fields of expertise. In “Working Stiff” we quote my mentor, Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, who told us on Sept. 19, 2001, “Every day I feel I have never in my life been so proud of my colleagues and coworkers.” The further time takes me from that event, the more I share his sentiment. (Note: Hirsch died on April 8.)

You were born in Israel and your father, a psychiatrist and medic in the Yom Kippur War, committed suicide when you were 13. Your maternal grandparents lost extended family in the Holocaust. How did those losses contribute to your life path?

I grew up with my family’s history always at the front of my mind — the fear of being refugees in a foreign land, of hunger, of hate crime. My grandmother and grandfather were Polish Jews who became refugees in Russia during the early days of the Second World War. My mother was born in a Siberian refugee camp. She knows hunger, real hunger. She was a child passenger on the Haganah ship Exodus, and remembers the churning sea and a huge crowd of terrified adults. She had to teach her own parents to speak Hebrew and translate for them when they first arrived in Israel in 1948. One of my children is named after a grand-aunt who perished in the Holocaust. That family history, combined with my own immigration to the United States at the age of 5, made me value hard work, resilience and empathy.

When my father died I was shocked and devastated. He was my mentor. I wanted to be a doctor like him. So being a forensic pathologist has in many ways helped me get closer to him — and the work I do helping bereaved families find closure also helps me find purpose in my own life.

Which are the toughest types of cases you face?

The most difficult are high-profile deaths with media scrutiny, because you have to work quickly to reach a conclusion and withstand a lot of outside pressure. Working with families who have lost a loved one in police custody or while incarcerated can be very tough, because they may not trust the medical examiner or coroner and may assume we are trying to cover things up. I usually make a point of reaching out to the families in these cases and reassuring them.

Which of your five senses do you use when examining a body?

The word “autopsy” means “see for yourself” in Greek, and though sight is my dominant sensory tool, in the morgue I make use of all my senses — except one. I don’t taste anything on the human body. I can, however, smell certain medical conditions. I can feel the inner surface of the bones for the ragged edges of a fracture. And I can sometimes diagnose a cervical fracture by listening for the cracking sound that occurs when broken bone rubs agains bone.

You’ve described your job as life-affirming. Why is that?

Most people assume that working with dead bodies is depressing. It really isn’t. Each death teaches me a lesson: both about health behaviors that I can practice to avoid the same fate, and about the unpredictability and fragility of life. It makes me appreciate every day that I myself can wake up, get out of bed and do what I do.

I learned recently that a pet cat will start eating you right after you die. Is there anything I can do now to convince my cats this is wrong?

As a cat owner you probably already know how utterly useless it is to attempt to persuade a cat to do anything. Don’t be distressed — I actually have a great deal of respect for cats. They are self-reliant creatures, and will not starve to death while perfectly good food is clearly and evidently available.

What do you do to de-stress or relax?

I love to travel and to hike around San Francisco — especially around Land’s End or to Ocean Beach. I also really enjoy working with my husband. T.J. and I are writing the first in a series of forensic detective novels. It’s a mystery set in contemporary San Francisco and is called “First Cut.”

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is managing editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].