We all have to go sometime. And if it’s up to us it will be peacefully in our sleep at an old age. In the off chance it’s more law and order than quietly in the night, there’s no one more amazing than Dr. Judy Melinek we would want on our case. The fact that Dr. Melinek took the steps to change careers while already waist deep in training for another is not only inspiring but brave. Her origin story on how she chose to investigate death is one we will not soon forget and can’t wait to share with you.
Q: Origin story time – what were you doing before and what led you to this?
A: I wanted to be a doctor ever since I was a little girl. My dad was a doctor, and I spent a lot of time reading his anatomy textbooks and aspiring to be like him. I remember accompanying him to the hospital and hearing over the intercom “Dr. Melinek report to the emergency department” and knowing one day that would be me. It was the 1970’s in New York City, and I decided at that point not to change my name even if I got married. My dad committed suicide when I was 13 years old and never saw me achieve my dream, but I think he inspires me every day in the empathy I have for the families of the deceased and the passion he shared with me about medicine. After medical school, I started off specializing in surgery but soon found the work schedule too exhausting. I switched to pathology and laboratory medicine, and it was during a rotation in forensics at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office that I found my calling.
Q: What additional resources and tools would you recommend for someone starting out in your industry? (i.e. Self-learning, experiences, books, mentors)
A: I think if you are a student the best thing you can do is work hard in school and independently read about the topics you are interested in. If you have a passion [for a topic] pursue it by educating yourself. I have a blog post about the steps you can take at different stages of your life and education if you want to become a forensic pathologist.
Q: Did you have a mentor or tribe of people you turned to?
A: Medicine has its own built-in apprenticeship program called internship, residency, and fellowship. I joined the fellowship at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office in 2001, and my “tribe” were all the other forensic pathologists there who trained me. Dr. Charles Hirsch was the Chief Medical Examiner, and he led the response to the 9/11 Twin Towers terrorist attacks. Learning from him, and alongside some of the sharpest minds in forensics during that time was a formative experience for me. It helped me appreciate that when we invest in our government agencies and civic structures, regular people with excellent training can do great things.
Q: What are some of the hardships and realities of being a woman in your industry?
A: When I first started out in forensics women were still a minority, but now they outnumber the men. I think forensic pathology is a great career path for “doctor mom” because it has pretty reasonable hours, and there are some wonderful women mentors who broke ground in the field, including Marcella Fierro, MD, who was the Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia for many years and Mary Case, MD, in St. Louis, MO. They really were the first to break the gender barriers in our field. Their luncheon, which is named the “Femme Fatale” luncheon at the National Association of Medical Examiners is now one of the most popular events and attended by over half the profession – all women supporting women. I find that working within the hierarchical and sometimes misogynistic world of law enforcement sometimes can be difficult, with male police officers who aren’t used to dealing with a smart woman, but as we start to outnumber the men, those attitudes are changing.
Q: How do you grow your network and community of collaborators?
A: I find that the best way to grow your network of colleagues is to attend national meetings and participate in leadership committees and also to contribute to basic science by publishing research. The two big professional organizations I participate in are the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). I just got nominated to be on the board of directors for NAME, and I am learning the ropes of how a large professional organization is run and managed.
Q: Can you name a time a mistake has led you to success?
A: The biggest mistake I ever made professionally was to go into surgery. It was the wrong career choice for me, and I figured it out fairly quickly, about six months into my internship. I switched to pathology and eventually subspecialized in forensics. The experience in surgery was difficult, and at the time I was going through it I was depressed, even suicidal, but after I had switched to pathology, I found my lifestyle changed dramatically and I was much happier. The experience, however, taught me a lot about surgical technique and diagnosis and I learned technical skills that I now apply when I do autopsies on deceased individuals who have died from surgical complications or when I have to testify in court about medical malpractice.
Q: Name a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night.
A: Dr. Hirsch would always say “the worst cross-examination you will ever undergo is with your head against the pillow the night before you testify.” I get anxious every time I have to testify in court, and it’s just like any other performance anxiety: I am worried I will screw things up, say the wrong thing or get caught in error. The consequence can be potentially a career-ending accusation of perjury (lying under oath). It helps that I am generally meticulous in doing my autopsies and very careful about the words I choose in my reports. Lawyers have a way of tripping you up with unfair, compound or complex questions, so it always helps to slow things down, take a deep breath and pause before answering. Meditation also helps with calming my nerves in these stressful situations.
Q: Time management – how do you fit it all in?
A: I don’t. Like all women, I’m dropping balls all the time, but the important ones stay in the air: family, important work deadlines, and self-care. The house can be messy for one more day. The dishes can wait until tomorrow or maybe the kids can do them this time. Any woman can “have it all” if you define “have it all” as meeting basic needs and having some fun. I’m only perfectly coiffed and in makeup if I’m going to be interviewed on TV. Otherwise, just like all the real moms I know, I’m barely holding it together, but muddling through by laughing at myself and getting help whenever and wherever I can get it.
Q: What are some key personality traits needed to do what you do?
A: Being civic-minded and curious. Being civic-minded speaks to the fact that work in this field is predominantly performed under government employ, at medical examiner or coroner offices. You can make more money in hospital pathology, but one thing that binds us, forensic pathologists, together is a duty-bound commitment to the pursuit of public health and justice in the context of civic institutions.
Curiosity lies at the core of any career as a pathologist. The job is constantly changing and evolving, and you have to stay on top of multiple fields of medicine to stay up to date. You cannot be a medical detective without having that drive to follow questions wherever they lead.
The most important skill you need in forensics is what can irreverently, but accurately, be called a “B.S. Meter.” It’s that sixth sense, based on training and experience, that tells you that something just isn’t right with a story you are being given. You know you have to dig deeper, ask more questions, run a few more tests. I guess this skill would be helpful in any aspect of medicine, but it is especially crucial in forensic pathology because it is not infrequent that family members or friends of decedents try to cover up for their illegal activities, or police officers give you a version of events that is incompatible with what you see on the dead body. The body doesn’t lie—and you have to have the confidence and skill to learn from it and to trust your inner voice when that voice warns you that something isn’t right.
Q: Name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences.
A: I’m most proud of my children, which include my actual children and those students who have interned with me and whom I have mentored. Watching them grow personally and professionally, and seeing them reach the goals they have set for themselves is even more rewarding than when I succeed at something myself.
I’m also very proud of the work I have done that benefits others: my pro-bono work for the Northern California Innocence Project working to free the wrongfully convicted; the teaching I do in high schools and community colleges to draw more students into our field; and the NAME Position Paper on Medical Examiner Independence, which I co-authored with others in my field to support other doctors in my profession who were being targeted politically for unpopular scientific opinions.
Q: Name the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned in running your firm.
A: Integrity is the most important guiding principle in maintaining and succeeding in business and life. I can choose my clients and I don’t need to take on any client who tries to influence me or threaten me or my staff. It is very easy, especially when you are a hard-working, people-pleaser like most over-achievers, and to try and bend over backward to accommodate clients, but there are certain things that are deal-breakers for me. If a client wants me to change my opinion to something that is not substantiated by the facts of the case or by the scientific evidence; if they lie to me and my staff; if they are verbally harassing. This exists in business and life, and I will not tolerate it.
Q: In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up?
A: 1. Exercise: Getting outside and breathing fresh air is a great mood lifter.
2. Volunteer: When I help others I immediately feel better about myself and what I am doing
3. Literally look at myself in the mirror and tell myself positive things, like “you look great!” Or “You worked hard and did a great job!” Sounds dorky but if you get in the habit of doing this, it actually works.
Q: What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting out? (Or a piece of advice you’re glad you ignored?)
A: This isn’t business advice, it’s life advice, and it’s the WORST advice ever, and yet people always repeat it when giving advice to newlyweds: Don’t go to bed angry. Do not follow this advice. It is stupid. Most of the time we get angry when we are either hungry or tired. If you just eat something or go to sleep and tackle the problem when you are well-rested and not hungry, the solution will come so much more easily. So go to bed angry. Most times you will wake up refreshed and forget whatever it was you were angry about.
For more info on what Judy is up to, writing updates, and insights into the world of forensic science and pathology follow her on:
Company Website: www.pathologyexpert.com
Facebook (on writing with T.J. Mitchell): facebook.com/DrWorkingStiff
Facebook (on forensic science news): facebook.com/DrJudyMelinekMD