Melinek was set to follow her father’s footsteps into the medical profession before she migrated to the world of forensic pathology. In Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, she recounts, with her husband, writer T.J. Mitchell, her introduction to the field, culminating with the 9/11 attack in New York City.
The ridiculous hours surgeons work made you leave that field; do you think you would have gravitated to forensic pathology if you’d had a more reasonable work schedule?
When I graduated medical school I got placed in an especially brutal, old-school surgery internship. I fainted from exhaustion twice inside six months working at that hospital. I decided that was not something I wanted to brag about to younger doctors once I achieved a position as an attending physician.
As a medical examiner you see a lot of carnage. Has it made you overprotective as a parent?
Just the opposite. We’re pretty permissive about giving our kids the independence they need to discover the world on their own, as long as we agree as parents that we’ve also given them the skills and knowledge they need to keep themselves safe.
What’s your go-to cocktail party story?
When people learn I do autopsies for a living they ask me questions that, in my experience, they don’t really want to know the answer to. They’ll ask, “What’s the worst way to die you’ve ever seen?” and I answer, “You really don’t want to know.”
You speak about your father’s suicide and how it’s affected you. What impact has that had on your approach to dealing with survivors?
My father killed himself when I was 13. I’ve always been the sort of person who talks about it freely, and this has helped me reach out to the families of suicides, because few have ever met another survivor willing to open up about it. I can understand this from my own family’s experience, and can try to help these families through their trauma.
What are some of the biggest things TV shows like CSI get wrong?
While I’m grateful to forensics dramas like CSI for making my profession more accessible to the lay public, they get the scientific and procedural facts wrong with such consistency that I wrote a post on my blog pathologyexpert.com called “7 CSI Fails.”
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
The question I most hate hearing is, “Did he suffer?” I will not answer that question; I gently steer the conversation in another direction. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I get asked on the stand about pain and suffering in a particular case, issues that are important in criminal sentencing or civil litigation, and have to contradict what I told the family verbally. Giving them closure and helping them grieve is the most rewarding part of my job.