Monday, August 4, 2014

The Most Insane Deaths — Life & Times Of A NYC Medical Examiner

Judy Melinek, M.D., in her office in San Francisco on July 31

The Most Insane Deaths Seen By
An NYC Medical Examiner

When Judy Melinek was considering where to begin her career as a medical examiner — New York or LA? — she was given great advice.
“If you really want to learn forensic pathology, do a rotation in New York City,” her chief resident said. “All kinds of great ways to die there.”
Including, but not limited to: plummeting down a manhole, attack by egg-roll machine, miscalculating the tensile strength of cable cord and scaffolding collapse.
In Melinek’s first week on the job, the tone became clear. As one novice began describing the case of “a man who was shot by a lady,” Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Seymour Hirsch corrected him.
“Shot by a woman,” Hirsch said. “Ladies don’t shoot people.”
And so began Dr. Judy Mel­inek’s education in life and death in New York City.
In her memoir “Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner,” co-authored with her husband, T.J. Mitchell, Melinek chronicles her time at the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — and it’s nothing like what you see on television.
“I get a kick out of the female ME with bedroom eyes, stiletto heels and a lot of cleavage,” she writes. At murder scenes, “I wore sensible shoes and a windbreaker.”
She also learned an old cop trick: If you’re recovering a body in an apartment building, ask every tenant to make coffee — it covers the smell. “Oldest trick in the book,” one officer told her.
Melinek began in September 1999 in “The Pit,” as New York’s autopsy suite is called. As promised, these bodies were weird. She performed her first autopsy on 26-year-old Terrence Booker (Melinek has changed the names of her patients in the book), who had sickle-cell anemia and a heroin problem.
 - Judy Melinek, M.D.

It began, as all autopsies do, with her inserting a needle into the side of each eye to collect fluid — a delicate procedure that Melinek perfected after once popping out a cadaver’s glass eyeball.
Then Melinek made the “Y” cut, from the edges of the each collarbone down to the pelvis, to look for fluids that might indicate organ failure. Booker’s fluids were normal, but in other cases where a cadaver has an excessive amount, Melinek likes to scoop that out using a big ladle she found at a cookware shop on East 23rd Street. (She also favors pruning shears for rib-cracking and a cutting board for tissue samples.)
Next, she removed all of Booker’s major organs and placed them between his legs — the best way to ensure they wouldn’t slip and fall to the floor. Then she removed Booker’s testes, took a sample from each, and put them back in the scrotum.
“I had been taught to replace them unless there was a tumor or signs of injury,” Melinek writes. “Families can be very particular about the testicles.”
Despite a meticulous, 2¹/₂-hour exam, the lack of a toxicology report meant that Melinek couldn’t rule Booker’s death an overdose.
She instead attributed it to “anoxic encephalopathy due to loss of consciousness of undetermined etiology,” which she says roughly translates to “F–k if I know!”
More exotic cases soon followed. There was the hipster struck by lightning during a rooftop party in Chinatown, body intact but shoes blown clean off. “A good-looking guy,” Melinek later told her husband. “But his eyes had a stupid look in them.”
“Everyone has a stupid look when they’re dead, don’t they?” her husband said.
Melinek corrected herself. “He looked thunder-struck.”
Times Square’s Marriot Marquis is apparently one of the
city’s popular suicide spots. 
Photo: Anne Wermiel/NY Post
Then there was “Cable Guy,” a meth-head who locked himself out of his apartment while walking his two dogs. Instead of calling a locksmith, he looped the dogs’ leashes around his doorknob, went to the roof, cracked open the building’s television cable box and wrapped a wire around his chest.
After stepping off the roof, the cord snapped and Cable Guy fell eight stories to his death. Melinek and the cops were most worried about his dogs (they were OK).
Then came a true freak accident: A machine used to make egg rolls exploded in Chinatown. A blade went flying and cut off one worker’s arm. Another worker, Miguel Galindo, was crushed by the machine’s enormous cylinder, suffocating him. Melinek’s autopsy showed that Galindo was conscious and lucid for minutes as his chest cavity filled with blood.
“Did he suffer?” is the question, Melinek writes, that she’s most often asked and most often dreads. She almost always lies.
“What’s the worst way to die?” is the next most-asked question, to which Melinek usually replies, “You don’t want to know.”
When people insist, however, she tells them about Sean Doyle.
Around Christmas 2002, bartender Doyle went out drinking with pal Michael Wright and Wright’s girlfriend. As they all walked home, Wright thought Doyle was hitting on his girlfriend, and witnesses later told cops they saw a man getting “the s–t beat out of him.” He was heard screaming, “No, don’t break my legs!” and another witness said he saw someone throw Doyle down an open manhole.
The drop was 18 feet. At the bottom was a pool of boiling ­water, from a broken main. Doyle didn’t die instantly — in fact, as first responders arrived, he was standing below, reaching up and screaming for help. No paramedic or firefighter could climb down to help — it was, a Con Ed supervisor said, 300 degrees in the steam tunnel.
Four hours later, Sean Doyle’s body was finally recovered. Its temperature was 125 degrees — the medical examiners thought it was likely way higher, but thermometers don’t read any higher than that.
When Melinek saw the body on her autopsy table, she writes, she thought he’d “been steamed like a lobster.” His entire outer layer of skin had peeled off, and his internal organs were literally cooked.
He otherwise had no broken bones and no head trauma, which meant he was fully conscious as he boiled to death.
“The worst nightmares I ever had in my two years at OCME,” Melinek writes, “came after I performed the postmortem examination of Sean Doyle.”

Other deaths gave Melinek more curious lessons. There was the subway jumper at Union Square, for example, whose body was recovered on the tracks of the uptown 4 train with no blood — none at the scene, none in the body itself. She’d never seen anything like it, and only CME Hirsch could explain: The massive trauma to the entire body caused the bone marrow to absorb all the blood.
“Everyone in the room agreed,” Melinek writes, “that I had the coolest case of the day.”
Finding a bullet for a gunshot wound, meanwhile, can be particularly baffling. Melinek says her favorite is “bullet embolus”: “A slug enters the beating heart at just the right spot and with precisely enough momentum to get flushed into the circulatory system, then surfs through smaller and smaller vessels until it gets stuck somewhere far removed from its point of entry.”
In one case, a man was shot in the chest, but the bullet was found in his liver.
During her tenure, the most popular suicide spot in New York City was the atrium in Times Square’s Marriott Marquis hotel. Melinek autopsied two jumpers: One, a 26-year-old man, leapt from the 43rd floor.
His right arm and left leg were recovered on the 11th floor, his other two limbs on the seventh floor, and part of his skull wound up in the elevator shaft.
Her other jumper, also a man, jumped from the 23rd floor. One leg was found on the 10th floor, his torso on the ninth.
“I suspect these people imagine they are going to plummet gracefully down and land with a melodramatic thump in the lobby,” Melinek writes, “but I never saw that result. The ones I saw had pinballed off a variety of jutting structures on the way, each impact causing damage to a different plane of the body. Not graceful at all.”
As many ways as there are to die in New York, there are as many ways not to die. If your vehicle breaks down, Melinek writes, never attempt to get out — unlike the driver whose tractor-trailer broke down on the Gowanus Expressway and was later found dead and pinned under his own rig.
Surprisingly, Melinek didn’t see many pedestrian deaths at all and writes that Hirsch explained it to her this way: “The average speed of a motor vehicle in Manhattan is 7 miles an hour,” he said. “No faster than a running possum.”
Melinek can also read living bodies: There was the tattooed man on line ahead of her and her family on the Upper West Side, and the scars on his neck told her he’d once been shot in the back of the head. White-supremacist markings in general don’t bode well for longevity. “A lot of dead guys have swastika tattoos,” ­Melinek writes.
And she has a final warning for New Yorkers who live alone with cats: The urban legend is true. “Your faithful golden retriever might sit next to your dead body for days, starving, but the tabby won’t,” she writes. “Your pet cat will eat you right away, with no qualms at all. I’ve seen the result.” — Maureen Callahan |

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