What is Forensic Pathology? Dr. Judy Melinek Shares Her Story

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What is Forensic Pathology? Dr. Judy Melinek Shares Her Story

Session 24

Today’s guest is Dr. Judy Melinek, a New York Times bestselling author and a Forensic Pathologist based in California. She documented her journey through her fellowship training in her book, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner (that’s an Amazon link).

One important thing to note is that pathology isn’t actually a required rotation in medical school, one reason that it’s not commonly under the radar of most medical students. Check out our discussion about the field of Forensic Pathology to see how you can explore if this is something you’re interested in.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[01:20] Working as a Forensic Pathologist

Dr. Melinek does some academic work. She is currently affiliated with UC Davis as a Research Associate. Forensic Science students from their Master’s and undergraduate programs shadow her but she isn’t presently on staff at any academic institution.

Most forensic pathology jobs tend to be for government agencies, either a coroner/medical examiner’s office. Any academic affiliation usually tends to be in the clinical instructor’s status teaching residents and medical students.

Dr. Melinek did her fellowship in Forensic Pathology from 2001 to 2002 and then she did another fellowship in Neuropathology from 2002 to 2003. In 2001, she started working as a Forensic Pathologist because even during fellowship, she got paid doing autopsies being part of the coroner/medical examiner’s office, specifically working for the New York City Medical Examiner.

[02:49] The Road to Forensic Pathology for Dr. Melinek

Dr. Melinek only figured out she wanted to become a forensic pathologist later on, since she wasn’t exposed to it as a specialty in medical school. She stresses this is something we need to further discuss and explore because it’s a real failing in our medical education that pathology is relegated to second year academic discourse but there is no required pathology rotation in medical school like there is for internal medicine or general surgery. It’s only something people have to discover on their own.

'It's a real failing in our medical education that there is no required pathology rotation in medical school.'Click To Tweet

Dr. Melinek got exposed to pathology in the second year of medical school just like all medical students. And then they offered this post-sophomore fellowship in pathology, which is an extra year you take in medical school between second and third year and work in the pathology department.

You’re just like a resident and you get paid, but you’re not just a resident or MD yet. But it’s an opportunity for them to expose people to pathology in a more hands-on level.

An Early Opportunity to Explore Pathology as a Medical Student

She basically did this post-sophomore fellowship in Pathology having wanted to take a gap year between college and med school. But she got in off the waiting list and she was afraid she would lose her spot if she decided to defer. So she found this as an opportunity to take a break but still be doing medicine and working at the same hospital she was training at.

Dr. Melinek describes it as a great experience having been exposed to multiple different rotations in pathology including the blood bank, autopsy, and surgical pathology. Also during that time, she was allowed to do research and she actually decided to do research with the liver transplant team. That’s when she fell in love with surgery and decided she wanted to be a surgeon. But everybody in Pathology convinced her to be a pathologist.

Upon finishing medical school, Dr. Melinek matched in surgery and went to a general surgery residency. She lasted for only six months until she collapsed from exhaustion and decided she wanted to be a pathologist realizing it was a better fit for her personally and professionally.

Because of her impressive work, the pathology department at the UCLA Medical School had saved Dr. Melinek a spot outside the match so when she quit surgery, they gave her a spot to start in July. Dr. Melinek claims it was the best decision she ever made.

[05:40] Post-Sophomore Pathology Fellowship

This type of fellowship is sponsored through ACGME and the American Board of Pathology. The organizations that accredit pathology residency programs allow a year of pathology while you’re still in medical school and it accounts towards your residency.

This existed when Dr. Melinek was still in medical school. (Upon checking on the internet, some institutions that offer this program today include UCLA, Stanford, Duke, and West Virginia University. Check with the institution you’re interested in getting into if they offer such program.)

Of the six post-sophomore fellows they had during her time, three ended up in Pathology. Dr. Melinek says this program helps people who are interested in the field to pre-select and also it cements their interest. It’s an easy way to get people interested in pathology.

Should Pathology Be a Required Rotation in Medical School?

She adds that Pathology is easy to recruit for once you’re exposed to it. It’s such a wonderful field. It’s so intellectually stimulating. People are really nice. It has pretty decent work hours and not as physically or emotionally grueling as some of the other specialties can be, especially surgery.

There are only about 700 or so board-certified forensic pathologists practicing in the United States, which is half of what they need for the demand. Click To Tweet

Dr. Melinek thinks it’s easy to recruit, but the problem is that it’s not a required rotation in medical school so it’s not in the radar of a lot of students. It’s not something they think about.

As a result, there are only about 700 or so board-certified forensic pathologists practicing in the United States, which is half of what they need for the demand. She sees job openings that are open for months and even years because there is just not enough forensic pathologists to fill. Dr. Melinek therefore highly recommends the field for medical students to consider in terms of job security and opportunities.

'I highly recommend the field of pathology for medical students to consider in terms of job security and opportunities.'Click To Tweet

[07:51] Surgery versus Forensic Pathology

Dr. Melinek got drawn to surgery because of it’s hands-on nature and you get to fix things, as a practical person that she is. However, she wasn’t attracted to the field’s lifestyle and found it to be too exhausting.

She was on call every other night and she had to watch her attending physicians cycle through multiple marriages and being there late at night for long hours, sacrificing their family times and their own mental health in exchange for the career, which she thought as unnecessary.

Dr. Melinek believes it’s a financial burden and a cultural problem in the field and that you really don’t need to train surgeons this way as there are more reasonable programs in general surgery.

What Dr. Melinek likes about pathology is the reasonable hours. She basically was drawn to it primarily because of that exposure she had in medical school though at that time she didn’t have the passion for it that she had for surgery. She felt disconnected from patients and that she wasn’t being a real doctor.

People do criticize that, which of course Dr. Melinek thinks is such crap. Anyway, she felt disconnected from patient care and from the action and excitement that surgery had until she did her forensic pathology rotation at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office.

[09:22] The Work of a Forensic Pathologist

When she was a resident in Pathology, they did rotations in different fields and she went to the New York ME’s office for a one-month rotation. There she fell in love with the field, being able to go to crime scenes, testify in court, and interact with police officers and with family members of those who had died. She finally got that variety and excitement she was missing.

Pathology Is Not Just Lab Work

Dr. Melinek wants people to understand that this is the pathology work. You’re not just in a lab doing autopsies and looking at microscopic slides all day.

You do a lot of field work, going out to scenes as well as a lot of work interacting with a lot of families on the phone. You testify in court at least once a month on average for her. As a forensic pathologist, you also interact with lawyers as you try to explain the science to them.

Basically, you’re built in as an academic and a teacher even though you’re not officially in an academic environment. Dr. Melinek finds herself educating family members about the disease process that killed their loved ones over the phone.

She finds herself teaching juries about science so that they can make a good decision about guilt or innocence about civil liability. She considers herself a teacher, just not in formal academic setting.

'One thing that people don't understand about forensic pathology is you're not just in a lab doing autopsies and looking at microscopic slides all day.'Click To Tweet

[10:55] Traits of a Good Forensic Pathologist

You have to be curious and to be the kind of person who digs more into something when it doesn’t make sense or it sets off your BS meter. A lot of medical specialties are not going to have all the answers and you have to take the best pass forward given the limitations of your time and financial resources. But in forensics, you have time.

They have an expression in forensics that is kind of tongue in cheek, “They’ll still be dead tomorrow.” On the plus side, it means you can work on a case the next day and not have to rush it. The other aspect of that is you can put this off 24 hours and think about it.

You can look up another article or contact your colleagues and wait. There’s no rush in those cases for you to come up with a conclusion. What’s more important is for it to be rigorous, accurate, and defensible.

They have an expression in forensics that is kind of tongue in cheek: 'They'll still be dead tomorrow.'Click To Tweet

[12:12] A Day in the Life of a Forensic Pathologist

Dr. Melinek currently works three days a week at the Alameda County Sheriff/Coroner’s Office and sometimes fill in on Mondays or Tuesdays if other people are sick or on vacation.

Her typical day at work is waking up at 6:00 to 6:30 am. She gets a text from her boss informing her of the number of cases she has. She gets her kids off to school and then drives to the office which is a 40-minute commute for her. She gets in at around 8:40 am.

Dr. Melinek reviews the cases and paperwork generated by death investigators from the office who are deputy coroners and they’re the ones who went out to the scene and collected the dead body. They have a clinical summary about what happened to the deceased, whether they were ill or drug abusing, or when they were last seen alive, when and how they were found, the condition of the body. All of these are in the report.

They review the reports and then split it up among themselves. In her current office, there is one chief forensic pathologist and four assistants who stagger their schedule so there’s usually two or three of them on a given time. From 9am to noon, they go in the morgue doing the autopsies.

How Long Does an Autopsy Take?

A typical autopsy takes about an hour or 90 minutes at the most if it’s a homicide case. Some cases can take multiple days where she would do two hours one day and two or three hours another day, splitting them up over several days. But the majority of the cases can be done in an hour to an hour and a half.

In the afternoon, she does paperwork, field phone calls, talk to lawyers, and also does her consult work. In addition to working for the coroner’s office, she is also an independent forensic consultant so she can get hired usually by attorneys and sometimes family members to do a second autopsy or give an opinion in a case of wrongful death, whether civil or criminal cases.

She looks at paperwork and reports and gives them her opinion. Sometimes, she gets called to testify for court.

[15:00] Percentage of Cases Seen by Dr. Melenik as a Forensic Pathologist

For the bodies that she’s doing an autopsy for, their causes of death are a mix. About 10-20% of her cases are homicides, which is disproportionate compared to what you see on television. The remaining 80% is a mixture of natural deaths, people who are elderly or young people with natural disease but haven’t seen a doctor. They either died at home or en route to the hospital or in the street and they don’t know why they died.

Then when Dr. Melinek does the autopsy, she finds natural diseases, heart disease being the most common. She also finds lung disease from smoking and complications of obesity on the natural death spectrum.

Another equal percentage of cases comprise accidents which are predominantly motor vehicle fatalities and overdoses. They can make it to the hospital and survive for a period of time but they’ll still come to their office because any case that is sudden, unnatural, or violent gets evaluated by the medical examiner.

A smaller percentage of cases would be suicides. Dr. Melinek reckons it’s 20% homicides, 80% split up between natural, accidents, and suicide.

[16:35] Call Schedule for Forensic Pathologists

In her current position as a contract pathologist, she doesn’t take call. The only person on call is the chief forensic pathologist and she estimates that he gets called out to scenes maybe once or twice a month at the most.

In the previous job she held at the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office, there were four of them who would split up calls. So they’d be on call for one week at a time, which means you just get called out at night to crime scenes and she gets called out about once a month. It would be unusual for her to be called out twice in the same week, and it’s usually once a week.

What You Do on the Crime Scene as a Medical Examiner

Most people may think that when you’re being called out in a crime scene, they’d imagine CSI, Bones, or Dr. House. In reality, Dr. Melinek says it depends on the case. When she was In San Francisco, they get called out just for homicide, which are clear cut cases or those where they suspected a homicide.

If she went out to a scene, it would have already been cordoned off by the police with a lot of police activity and the medical examiner would be the one would come in underneath the line.

First, you have to sign in, so they have a log of who comes in and out of the scene. You have to have your personal protective gear, gloves, booties, depending on the condition of the scene. The first thing they do when they get there is got basic information from the police officers at the scene about what happened, how was the body found, were shots fired, what did people hear or see, what are witnesses telling you.

Then they go over to the body. They don’t move the dead body until after it’s been photographed. A lot of time on the scene is typically spent waiting for the crime scene unit photographers to do their work and document everything with photography and video.

And only then can they move the body, take a look, and assess the injuries so they can give the homicide detectives at the scene an idea of what they’re seeing on the body and some leads about things they can question witnesses about.

Becoming Desensitized to Dead Bodies, Blood, and Guts

When asked about how she gets used to seeing these crime scenes, Dr. Melinek explains that all of medicine is a desensitization process. She remembers the first time she came in and got introduced to a cadaver in her first year of medical school. She freaked out.

Judy knew she would be dissecting a cadaver because that was part of medical school and she’s always been fascinated in human anatomy and how the body works. She says there’s always a gross out factor, but you still find yourself getting drawn to it.

You actually get desensitized over the course of medical school, the first time you see a delivery or an autopsy or you do surgery and you see somebody’s chest wide open with a heart beating. It’s shocking yet you’re trained sufficiently to do your job and follow the lead of the people with you in terms of learning how to cope with the stresses of the job.

All of medicine is a desensitization process.Click To Tweet

Is It Stressful to Be a Forensic Pathologist?

Dr. Melinek finds that forensic pathology is actually less stressful than taking care of living patients. When taking care of patients, there are demands of the patients and families which can be unreasonable. They’re in pain and suffering. They’re not happy.

So she found it more stressful given that and it was harder for her to separate from that and forget about it once she gets home than it is for her dealing with the horrible things she sees on the daily basis because she knows they’re no longer suffering and out of their misery.

Dr. Melinek deals with this by thinking it’s her job to make sense of this chaos and give some closure to the family and answers to the legal system that can help repair the mess that a few seconds of impulsivity created.

Forensic pathology is actually less stressful than taking care of living patients.Click To Tweet

[21:05] Postgraduate Training for Subspecialization in Pathology

After finishing medical school, the minimum is three years of anatomic pathology residency and one year of forensic pathology fellowships. That’s a total of four years of postgraduate training before you can go and work at a medical examiner/coroner’s office.

Dr. Melinek did surgery first, and then when she went to pathology. She didn’t know she wanted to do forensic pathology, so she did both four years of anatomic and clinical pathology. Anatomic and clinical pathology combined make you more marketable for working in a hospital setting.

Clinical pathology involves laboratory medicine, so it involves managing the laboratories at the hospital, the blood bank, the hematology lab, the toxicology lab, the microbiology lab. It involves learning how the test work, the assays work, and how to supervise and manage the equipment and the technologists who work there.

Anatomic and clinical pathology combined make you more marketable for working in a hospital setting.Click To Tweet

So instead of the minimum three, Dr. Melinek did four years of residency and then two years of fellowship, one in forensic pathology and the other one is forensic neuropathology, which was a program that her fellowship placed at the New York City Office.

What Do Neuropathologists Do?

A typical neuropathologist works in a hospital setting where you’re diagnosing tumors and doing surgical pathology. It’s a two-year program where one year is spent examining brains and doing surgical pathology while the other year is spent doing research in order to be board-certified.

Instead, Dr. Melinek just did one year of examining brains in a forensic setting. It’s both brains and spinal cord taken out of the autopsy in cases where the death is sudden or violent, sometimes they have gunshot wounds, sometimes a history of seizure disorder, sometimes without any history and the pathologist out of prudence, saves the brain and spinal cord for a more thorough analysis by a neuropathologist.

A neuropathologist would slice the brain and spinal cords and then look them under the microscope to make a diagnosis of things like Alzheimer’s disease or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which is injury caused by repeated concussions.

[23:41] Competitiveness of Pathology Residency

Dr. Melinek says it’s not competitive to become a forensic pathologist. In fact, it’s easier compared to other specialties and subspecialties. She adds that a lot of pathology programs don’t fill. This is actually surprising to her because it’s a great, fun job, especially now that she’s hitting middle age and a lot of her friends and colleagues that have gone into other specialties are hitting burnout but she’s not tired at all.

She actually has colleagues in their early 80’s who are still practicing because they love what they do. Every day is something new. Every day is challenging.

'I know pathologists who are in their early 80's and are still practicing because they love what they do. Every day is something new.'Click To Tweet

[Related episode: A Look at Pathology Match Data, and Lifestyle Reports.]

How to Find Out If You Want to Be a Pathologist

If this is something you’re interested in or you just want to test the waters, Dr. Melinek recommends that you do well in your histology and pathology courses in first and second year. Then start talking to your teachers, most of them are in the pathology department at your hospital. Find out about doing rotations with them and see if you can shadow them.

Go down to the surgical pathology division and find out when they have their rounds or when they have their teaching cases. Sometimes they have resident conferences where they sit around the microscope and they look at slides. They always have extra room for medical students.

She further says there really are not enough medical students who are interested in this field so they get so excited when someone shows up. You can just set up the microscope, listen in and look at the pretty pictures. If you get dizzy looking at the microscope, just look away when they’re moving the slide and look back when they got it fixed.

Lastly, start reading about the subject. She recommends doing a rotation in your third and fourth year. It’s going to have to be an elective. And if your medical school is affiliated with a coroner/medical examiner’s office, she recommends taking an elective at least one week there to see what they do.

Even if you don’t end up going into forensic pathology, say you’re interested in internal medicine or surgery, you will still benefit from it because it will give you a perspective that nobody else has and it will help you understand how to prevent death in your patients.

[26:47] Is There Any Bias Against DOs in Pathology?

Dr. Melinek explains there are plenty of opportunities for osteopathic students in forensic pathology. Having a DO is not an impediment in getting either a residency or fellowship in general pathology or forensic pathology. She has several DO friends who have gone through the program.

The only frustrating thing for them sometimes is keeping abreast of the osteopathic manipulation requirements necessary for licensure and continued certification, which can be annoying since it’s not something they use every day, but they just take the courses and do it.

Subspecialty Opportunities for Pathologists and Interaction with Other Specialties

Other subspecialty opportunities after forensic pathology include neuropathology, anthropology, pediatric pathology, and cardiac pathology.

Dr. Melinek doesn’t work directly with other specialties, but she interacts with them through medical records. One example is when she gets charts from people who have died and she calls the primary care doctor of the deceased to get more information. More of them are psychiatrists such as issues pertaining to substance abuse and suicidality and cohort population.

Dr. Melinek also interacts with geriatricians especially when they don’t write death certificates properly and she’d have to educate them about how to properly code or write a death certificate that would be accepted by the Department of Public Health.

She also interacts with other pathologists and consults with them on their cases, getting additional information about things like unusual tumors or those less common in their cohort. She sometimes gets unusual disease processes she doesn’t see frequently enough to be able to diagnose right away. That’s why she sees the importance of being affiliated with or have relationships with hospital pathologists to help guide you.

Dr. Melinek’s advice to those getting into geriatrics is to schedule an elective rotation during medical school in the pathology department or at the medical examiner/coroner’s officer to give them a better appreciation of who it is doing the job and why they do it and how they’re trained. It would also teach them to write proper death certificates so they don’t run into trouble as they mature as practitioners.

[30:45] Other Special Opportunities in Pathology

Dr. Melinek considers doing extra witness consult work as the most lucrative and rewarding where you get hired by either family members to do a second autopsy when they don’t trust the first autopsy or if the coroner/medical examiner has declined to do the autopsy saying it’s not within their jurisdiction but the family members will sometimes want an autopsy anyway so you can do private autopsies in that setting.

As for legal cases, Dr. Melinek finds that her consult work is a lot more challenging than her work for the coroner/medical examiner with regards to the complexity of the cases. If something’s going to court, it’s because of a dispute, something people don’t agree on. It can be challenging to review all the materials and come to some sort of consensus or opinion that can bring the sides together which she finds very rewarding.

[31:45] What She Wished She Knew Before Starting Forensic Pathology

Dr. Melinek wished she had known how political forensic pathology can be. Although it wouldn’t have changed her opinion since she still would have chosen the same path, she thinks she would have been a little bit more prepared for it emotionally and mentally for some of the challenges that the field has, especially for issues that officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths, high-profile cases such as when a celebrity dies.

Dr. Melinek finds it stressful to be the one that everybody is search answers for and having the pressure of the family and media and supervisors are trying to get you to come up with an answer quickly. And as she reiterates, forensic is best done over time meticulously and slowly so you can come up with a thorough answer that’s defensible.

Granted, there are some circumstances like in surgery when someone is bleeding out where you have to work quickly, but in the majority of cases in medicine, you do have some time. And if anybody is trying to rush you or do a stat on something that doesn’t need that level of urgency, you should immediately put the brakes on and slow down because that’s when you’re going to screw up.

Dr. Melinek insists this is an important lesson to pass on to anyone that it’s important to take your time and do a thorough job otherwise you’re going to miss something if you’re stressed and under outside pressure.

[33:40] Media Training for Forensic Pathologists

Dr. Melinek says most of the training comes on the job itself. Having a good fellowship program and having good mentors who are willing to teach you about it especially if you go to a good urban area as opposed to a suburban area, you will get exposure as there will be high profile cases and stuff in the press.

You have to learn from your colleagues and the staff you work with on how to manage it. She adds it’s worthwhile later in your training once you’ve already become a forensic pathologist to take some time to do media training and learn how to work with media professionals to answer questions in an interview setting. Give sound bites to the press and interact with them so you’re able to get your message across.

Media training is something you’re not going to get in medical school. You’re not going to get it on the job and it’s something you essentially have to seek out and pay for yourself. She did it a few years ago when the her book, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner came out, which she co-authored with her husband, T.J. Mitchell.

It’s a book about her forensic training. She had to learn how to interview and how to talk to the press, and the training she did for the book publicity has reaped rewards as a forensic pathologist as well because it has taught her how to interact with the press in high-profile cases.

[35:20] The Best and Worst Things about Forensic Pathology

What Dr. Melinek likes the most is the excitement and unpredictability of it and the fact that she is here to serve anyone. When she walks into the morgue every morning and gets the list of cases, it could be someone wealthy or poor, a really famous person or someone unknown.

Dr. Melinek compares forensic pathology to a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get. Death is like that as well as life, you don’t know what you’re getting in the morning, and you just have to learn how to roll with the punches and deal with it the best way you can.

She adds how rewarding it is to be able to help family members. She loves having patient contact in terms of relating with the family members of the deceased who are her patients, too, helping them with grieving, closure, and understanding the process.

Forensic pathology is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you're going to get.Click To Tweet

What she likes the least is true with any job and it’s dealing with nasty people. Sometimes you have to interact with people under stress or micromanaging supervisors. Working at a sheriff/coroner’s office, some of her immediate supervisors are not physicians so they don’t understand medicine. She finds it frustrating sometimes to explain to them what she does and why it’s important in terms of getting the financial or time support she needs.

[37:53] Changes in Forensic Pathology Over the Years

Dr. Melinek has seen changes in her career in the past fifteen years such as the advent of CT scans with 3D imaging coming into the forefront which is becoming more common not only in the hospital setting but also in the medical examiner’s setting.

Genetic testing has also advanced tremendously, so now they have access to genetic tests for sudden cardiac death genes, things that can predispose someone to channelopathies or risk factors for sudden cardiac death that they can communicate to families. There now changes in histopathology in terms of the quality of slides they’re getting, the scanning capacity, digital forensics, being able to share information.

The basic techniques are the same since you’re still have to cut a dead body and you’re still going to need your scalpel and scissors. There is virtual autopsy where people use CT scans or MRI to diagnose certain diseases but ultimately, an autopsy is the gold standard.

You can’t use a virtual autopsy to diagnose infectious disease, and you still need to take a sample from the body and grow it in a laboratory. Or you still need the microscopic sections of the heart to diagnose a cardiac defect. Radiology is good to a certain degree but an autopsy is the gold standard and still relied upon on most court settings.

Would You Become a Forensic Pathologist Again?

Lastly, if Dr. Melinek had to do it all over again, she would still have chosen the same specialty. In fact, she would have skipped surgery and went straight into this field.

She also wishes to leave a message to medical students. In medical school, she got the impression that once you choose your specialty, that’s it. And if you fail out of your residency or hate it, you’re stuck and you’re not going to be able to find another residency. It’s going to be difficult for you to switch.

About 1/3 of doctors switch their specialties at some point in their career, whether during residency or after it and then they do a separate residency. Some do it halfway through a career even in their 50’s. Dr. Melinek wants students to be aware that switching is possible.

You're not a loser if you hate your residency or you're miserable.Click To Tweet

You’re not a loser if you hate your residency or you’re miserable. There are other options. Sometimes places will take you outside of the match, other times you can go through the match again and you will find a position that fits. Sometimes it’s also not the career but the job.

It may be the right career for you, which is the right specialty, but you just happen to be in a bad residency program or a bad job environment with a bad supervisor and sometimes switching jobs is the solutions. But there are options out there so don’t feel like you’re not going to be able to find a position in medicine because you’re not happy where you are currently.

[41:15] Working Stiff by Dr. July Melinek

Dr. Melinek explains the impetus for writing her book, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. While she was in medical school, she had a professor who encouraged them to keep a journal to document their transition from lay people to medical people, how they learned the terminology and how they became doctors.

When Dr. Melinek decided to do forensic pathology and was starting the fellowship, she thought how inaccurate all of these televisions shows are and nobody knows about the forensic process she’s going to be going through in the next year, so she decided to start writing her journal.

Every day, in her one-hour commute to work and another hour going back, she had two hours a day for writing, using a handheld device where she kept a journal. At the end of her fellowships for two years, she had a baby and she restructured the journal by cases.

Working With Her Husband on Working Stiff

She had to take it out of chronological order to get a case-based narrative. She was working, so she had to hand it to her husband, T.J.Mitchell who was an English major in college and had been working as a writer for other people.

The couple basically sat on it for about ten years. It was the tenth year anniversary of 9/11 that changed things for them. It was no longer personal history but what she had experienced was history since Dr. Melinek was one of the thirty forensic pathologists in New York City at that time of the World Trade Center attack.

She was the rookie in the team, arriving in July and had two months of training before that attack happened. This then became a big part of her diary as well and tackling those chapters was the most difficult for her.

She didn’t want to write a book specifically about 9/11 but something that would encourage students and experts in different fields to understand what it is they do and what the training process is like. Now, the couple is transitioning to a detective fiction novel they’re working on.

If you’re curious, there some shows working with consultants. In fact, Dr. Melinek has consulted on some shows in the past such as ER. The problem is they have to do change certain scenes in order to move the plot along. They do have consultants but they don’t always listen to them.

[45:30] Final Words of Wisdom from Dr. Judy Melinek

If you’re interested in pursuing this field, Dr. Melinek recommends you check out her website, and linked to that is her blog.

Specifically, check out Dr. Melinek’s blog post about the steps to becoming a forensic pathologist, addressed to students at different levels of their training. It explains what to do if you’re in high school, college, medical school, or in residency, as well as a paragraph each about the next steps and what you should look for.

Links and Other Resources