Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies and the Making of a Medical Examiner

Nursing Book Club

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies and the Making of a Medical Examiner

By Judy Melinek, M.D., and T.J. Mitchell (Simon & Shuster, 2014)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

In Judy Melinek’s new book, Working Stiff, we find out exactly what forensic pathologists do — and begin to hope we never need one.

Back in 2001, Melinek took a one-year fellowship as an assistant medical examiner for the City of New York. She thought it would be a change of pace from the hazards of her previous surgical residency and seemingly nonstop hospital hours, allowing her to finally have a normal family life.

The city had a lot to teach her.


Melinek began her job with a grisly crane accident that I still vividly remember from the news. If you lived or worked in New York at the time, sky-high signs of business development were everywhere. The local papers played up the accident, which had crushed a construction worker’s head. No one wants to think about a crane crashing through their wall or dropping on their head, but the author got to see what happens when it does.

From there, it was out of the pot and into the fire. Melinek started her new position only four months before 9/11, which became one of the largest forensic investigations ever held in the U.S. She gradually got her feet on the ground as she dealt with detectives and prosecutors, learning when to push and when to push back.


Without spoiling the book, I can only say that there are more ways for an unexpected death to occur than one can easily imagine. For each, a cause of death must be found and a family must be handled. Melinek is the daughter of a suicidal parent, so when she tells people that she has walked in their shoes and knows how they feel, she’s not just reaching for something compassionate to say.

Her take-away message is a good one for all of us: Nearly ever unexpected fatality she examined was “either the result of something dangerously mundane or of something predictably hazardous.” She also found that the risks of elective surgery are not imaginary, something of which we’ve all been recently reminded with the death of Joan Rivers.

That being said, readers who like medical detective work will find a lot to enjoy in this book. For me, it also satisfied my love of learning about what makes other people’s jobs interesting. If either of these things is something that you also find intriguing, pick up Working Stiff. It might suggest a whole new career path.  

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.



Can nurses become coroners or medical examiners? The answer is, “Sometimes.”

The terms “coroner” and “medical examiner” are often used interchangeably, but they’re not synonymous. Both are responsible for investigating sudden, violent or unexplained deaths to establish the manner and official cause of death — information that’s often used in court. However, in many areas, M.E.s must be licensed forensic pathologists.

Forensic nurses can work in coroner’s or M.E.’s offices, either supporting pathologists or working as a forensic investigator or deputy coroner. A nurse could also become a coroner, which is an appointed or elected office often held by laypeople. (For instance, some California counties have sheriff-coroners.) 

Since coroners and forensic technicians don’t necessarily come from a healthcare background, a nurse’s medical experience can be very useful in death investigation.

A few states are beginning to allow nurse medical examiners, but California does not. Areas that have a coroner rather than an M.E. usually have one or more pathologists on staff, in part because California still allows only licensed physicians to sign death certificates.

If you are interested in the specialty of death investigation, there’s a growing number of college-level courses on the subject. The International Association of Forensic Nurses ( suggests also pursuing certification from the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (
 — Aaron Severson

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