Remembering 9/11 in literature

exploring the 9/11 legacy in literature #WorkingStiff#ProjectRebirth#CityofDust

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies,

and The Making of a Medical Examiner,

by Judy Melinek, M.D.and T.J. Mitchell

The author, Judy Melinek, M.D., wrote this  account of her training as a forensic pathologist, a physician specialist who investigates sudden, unexpected or violent deaths. Her husband, T.J. Mitchell co-authored.

When she applied for a position in New York City at the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), Dr. Judy Melinek never imagined that decision would plunge her into the nightmare of September 11, 2001. She was at the ME office that day when the Twin Towers were attacked and fell, killing thousands of people.

The main job of a medical examiner is to investigate death by examining a corpse- an autopsy. They look for evidence of cause of death, was it due to disease or trauma, and time of death, was it recent or remote. They hunt for signs that the death was self or other inflicted. Sometimes they may even need to establish the identity of the corpse.

Such was the case after September 11. She and the other staff collaborated with the team of investigators who worked night and day identifying remains of the victims, a task she vividly describes in the book. This was basically their only job, since the cause of death was for the most part irrelevant, and impossible to determine. Sometimes they had only a small body part, as little as a finger, to extract DNA to identity a victim. Such identification was critical to bring closure to the families who lost loved ones, people who left for work that day, and never came home.

Dr. Melinek describes not only the science of what she was doing, but also the emotion behind it; how she and the other medical examiners and staff felt about their work. She describes how it affected her relationship with her husband and young son, the problem of explaining to him what she was seeing and experiencing on a daily basis. She didn’t have the heart to tell him how many trailers full of partial bodies there were, after he saw just one and was shocked.

She also discusses other cases she worked on.  As a forensic pathologist, Dr. Melinek  understands why and how people die, and therefore also knows how people can avoid dying unexpectedly. Pathologists tend to be blunt, straightforward and to the point, as when she writes,

  • “So don’t jaywalk.
  • Wear your seat belt when you drive.
  • Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise.
  • Watch your weight.
  • If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If your aren’t, don’t start.
  • Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad.
  • You know that yellow line on the subway platform? It’s there for a reason.
  • Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.” 

Working Stiff moves at a quick pace, in a conversational style. When she uses medical jargon, she explains it in simple terms. She describes the cases she investigated in detail so those with weak stomachs (no pun) may want to skip this read.

Having experienced her father’s unexpected death when she was 13 years old, she was no stranger to it, and she learned more from the 262 autopsies she did during her training. As she says in this engaging memoir,

To confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you have to love the living.” 

Dr. Melinek also blogs at Forensic Pathology Forum 

The Statue of Liberty

Other authors have written about the medical consequences of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 in these books and articles.

City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11

mounted police officer
a New York City police officer and his horse represent the city proudly

by Anthony DePalma

“In City of Dust, Anthony DePalma offers the first full accounting of one of the gravest environmental catastrophes in United States history.

The destruction on 9/11 of two of the world’s largest buildings unleashed a vortex of dust and ash that blotted out the sun and has distorted science, medicine and public policy ever since. The likely dangers of 9/11’s massive dust cloud were evident from the beginning, yet thousands chose not to see. Why? As the sickening results of exposure became evident, many still refused to recognize them. Why? The consequences are still being tallied in the wasted bodies and disrupted lives of thousands who gave their all when the need was greatest, but whose demands for justice have been consumed by years of politics and courtroom maneuvers.

Separating reality from myth – and doing so with exceptional literary style and grace, DePalma covered Ground Zero for The New York Times for four years. DePalma introduces heroic firefighters, dedicated doctors and scientists, obsessive city officials, partisan politicians, aggressive lawyers, and compassionate judges and reveals the individual decisions that destroyed public trust, and the desperate attempts made to rebuild it.

The dust that was the World Trade Center has changed everything it touched. This is the story of that dust, the 9/11 disaster after the disaster, and what it tells us about ourselves and our future.”

(Amazon review)

Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors

by Dr. Robin Stern and Courtney E. Martin

“Written in conjunction with the documentary Rebirth, a full decade in the making, an uplifting look at the lives of nine individuals whose lives were forever changed by the largest tragedy our nation has ever faced. 

In Project Rebirth, a psychologist and a journalist examine the lives of nine people who were directly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. Written concurrently with the filming of the documentary, it is uniquely positioned to tackle the questions raised about how people react in the face of crippling grief, how you maintain hope for a future when your life as you knew it is destroyed, and the amazing ability of humans to focus on the positive aspects of day-to-day living in the face of tragedy.”

(Amazon review)

NYFD engine
honoring the brave NYFD firefighters who rescued survivors and those who lost their lives doing so

At Morgue, Ceaselessly Sifting 9/11 Traces

“Outside the chalk-white tent, the whistle of traffic along the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive signals the forward movement of a city. But inside, 16 refrigerated trailers hum in a ceaseless chorus, giving voice to the dead whose remains are contained in their hold.

The trailers hummed as time separated the city from the 11th of September: as the smoking mountain of what had been the World Trade Center became a yawning hole; as 1.6 million tons of debris were sifted through on a Staten Island landfill; as commemorative services caused heads to bow. They hummed and they continue to hum, a mantra-like reminder that talk of closure is premature.” (excerpt from newspaper article)

Public health and medical disaster responses: The untold story of 9/11

By Kelly B. Close, MD

former National Coordinator of Disaster Volunteers for the American Red Cross

“You never know when your life is going to change.

My red business suit was almost buttoned, and I was rehearsing my presentation for the Milford, Connecticut Red Cross board of directors, even though my mind kept wandering to my wedding just nine days earlier in Walt Disney World. An urgent call from my new husband to come to the television interrupted my wedding day dreams.

As soon as I saw the images of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, I knew that my plans for the day – maybe even my life – had changed.” (excerpt from article at ems1.com)

Triumph Over Terror

by Bob Ossler with Janice Hall Heck

“What do Ossler’s insights reveal about finding meaning and purpose in the thick of chaos and personal tragedy?

Chaplain Ossler chronicles the best of humanity—acts of courage and goodness in the midst of unimaginable devastation. As terrorist attacks continue to assault humanity, Triumph Over Terror reveals how your spirit can triumph over terror’s reign, and how you can help others suffering from trauma and loss.”(Amazon review)

(This blog post contains several affiliate links, a commission is paid if used to make purchase. Thank you.)

One World Trade Center
One World Trade Center, photo taken 8/16/2013 by Dr. Aletha

I appreciate all of you who follow this blog; there are numerous other blogs to choose from so I am honored you chose to spend some time here. A special welcome to all my new followers from this past month.

I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use this form to get an email notification of new posts . Please find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. Thanks so much.

Dr. Aletha 

an open book with pages folded to make a heart
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Why women physicians are good for health care

The first woman graduate of a United States medical school was born in Bristol England in 1821. Elizabeth Blackwell came to this country as a child and originally had no interest in medicine. But when a dying friend told her, “I would have been spared suffering if a woman had been my doctor”, she found her calling.

By the most recent statistics published by  the Kaiser Family Foundation, 48% of United States medical school graduates  are women; in some states, over 50% are women. If that trend continues, eventually at least half of all practicing physicians in the United States will be women. Currently about one third are female.

class reunion
My medical school graduating class at our 30th reunion; the original class was larger, 150 students, but the percentage of women was the same as in this photo. (I’m in the pink dress)

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Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

The first woman graduate of a United States medical school was born in Bristol England in 1821. (thank you, UK readers). Elizabeth Blackwell came to this country as a child and originally had no interest in medicine. But when a dying friend told her, “I would have been spared suffering if a woman had been my doctor”, she found her calling.

She was denied admission to multiple medical schools. The Geneva Medical College of New York submitted her application to the student body for a vote, and, as a joke, they voted to admit her. Well, the joke was on them as she enrolled, completed medical school and graduated in 1849.

Read more detail about How Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman doctor in the United States

With her sister, Emily Blackwell , who also  graduated from medical school, and a German physician, Marie Zakrzewska, they opened and ran the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857.

Dr. Emily Blackwell  managed the Infirmary for 40 years. Dr. Marie Zakrzewska moved to Boston when she founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which trained  women physicians and cared for the poor.

Due to failing health, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell retired from practice in the 1870s.

The Physicians Mom Group (PMG) declared Dr. Blackwell’s birthday February 3 as National Women Physicians Day. This day celebrates all the significant contributions that women physicians make daily, none of which would have been possible without Elizabeth Blackwell.

Dr. Blackwell embodied the ABC characteristics of extraordinary women physicians-

Attentive, Brave, Compassionate

Women physician members of CMDA providing medical care in Ecuador

Dr.Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Prior to founding her hospital, Dr.Zakrzewska served as professor at the New England Female Medical College. That school produced another notable women physician, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

Dr. Crumpler graduated in 1864, becoming the first African-American woman to earn the M.D. in the United States.  After practicing in Boston, she moved to Virginia where she and other black physicians cared for freed slaves, who otherwise would have had no access to medical care. In 1883 Dr. Crumpler wrote a book of medical advice for women and children, titled Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical publications by an African American.

Dr. Virginia Apgar

More recently, a woman physician’s work has impacted the lives of countless babies and their families. If you have had a baby, or been born within the past 60 years, you benefited from the work of Virginia Apgar, M.D.

She was neither an obstetrician or a pediatrician, but an anesthesiologist. As she observed deliveries of infants she proposed a scale to rate how well a newborn was adapting to life outside the mother.

crying baby
courtesy Pixabay

She considered 5 factors:

  1. heart rate
  2. respiratory (breathing) rate,
  3. muscle tone,
  4. reflexes, and
  5. color-pink (warm) or blue(cold)

And assigned each a score- 0, 1, or 2, at 1 minute of age, and again at 5 minutes.

So a newborn had a potential score as low as 0 and as high as 10.

The higher the score, referred to as the Apgar score, the more likely the baby was healthy and would do well. The lower the score meant the baby was in trouble, and needed intensive medical attention.

After testing the use of the rating scale over several years, doctors starting using it routinely; so for the past 50-60 years almost all babies have been “graded” with an Apgar score at birth. The Apgar score  is used widely throughout the world.

Dr. Apgar, who played violin and cello in her college orchestra, was appointed the first full professor of medicine at Columbia University and also was a director for the March of Dimes.

The National Library of Medicine profiles

these and many other women physicians at

 Changing the face of Medicine –

celebrating America’s women physicians.

exploring the HEART of women physicians

I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use this form to get an email notification of new posts . Please find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. Thanks so much.

                              Dr. Aletha 

Two Words That Changed My Life

our “happily ever after” did not match reality. Our marriage was often tense, unsatisfying, and distant  and we did not understand why. We had to look to the past to find the reason for the pain in our present.

In college I joined Chi Alpha, a faith-based student group. When I started dating  a young man of a different belief, he enjoyed coming to the gatherings with me and my friends liked him. . We were fond of each other, but his feelings grew stronger and more serious than mine.

I felt it only fair to end the relationship. We parted amicably but he left our group; it was awkward for both of us. Although I felt the breakup was necessary, I grieved for the loss of our friendship.

One evening several of us were talking when a new member of our group joined us. We knew little about him other than he had recently left the Army and started attending our college.

He looked at me and said, “Where is John tonight?” (not his real name) No one spoke as everyone looked from me to him and back to me. Apparently he was the only one who didn’t know we had broken up.

Finally, one of the girls softly explained, “They aren’t dating anymore.”

Everyone remained silent, I suppose assuming I was upset at the reminder. I wasn’t upset but I realized everyone else was uncomfortable. I didn’t want our new friend to feel bad about the mistake, so I tried to make light of it. I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.

“That’s right,” I said smiling.  “I’m available.”

With that, everyone, including me, laughed. Thinking back now, I puzzle why I said that. It was out of character for me, a confirmed introvert, and besides, I did not need or want another romantic relationship with anyone. I was planning to attend medical school, and romance did not fit into that plan.

However, the young man took me seriously, calling me a few days later to ask for a date. And despite my reluctance to become involved, I said yes.

“What harm could it do?” I thought. “Why sit in the dorm alone on Friday night?”

That night I learned about Raymond’s past. He separated from the Army after serving for three years. He had already earned a bachelor’s degree and was attending graduate school with his veteran’s benefits. I casually asked if he had been stationed overseas. He said yes- he had served in Germany and in Vietnam. I did not realize those words also would change my life.

soldiers at a remote military base
various scenes from the firebase where Raymond was stationed in VietNam; I understood nothing about what happened there.

This was 1972 and  the American war in Vietnam was raging. The United States government needed soldiers to carry out the engagement, and was drafting them, which which they and their families  dreaded. The war was unpopular and divided our country. We watched the course of the conflict nightly on television news (no Internet  or social media then).

Raymond was the first person I knew personally who had served in Vietnam. Service members and veterans of that war were portrayed in the media as fighting an unnecessary, unjustified war at best and as baby killers at worst.

Today military service members and veterans are honored and considered heroes . Today’s veterans feel proud of what they do; not so for those who served in Vietnam.

library interior
The reading room of the library looks the same as it did 40 years ago.

Over dates at  football games, church, social events and study times our feelings for each other grew. from friendship to love. He asked me to marry him a few weeks later, but I wouldn’t commit so soon. We married about 2 years later, as he completed his master’s degree.

Soon after our wedding I started medical school, graduated and started practicing.  He pursued a career in the Information Technology industry. We raised two sons, traveled, attended church.

But our “happily ever after” did not match reality. Our marriage was often tense, unsatisfying, and distant  and we did not understand why. We did not communicate well. He felt I was demanding and controlling. I felt he was insensitive and selfish. We had to look to the past to find the reason for the pain in our present.

family skiing on mountain
one of many family ski trips

Military medicine now recognizes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a common result of service in combat; 40 years ago it was unrecognized and untreated. There were no support groups, counselling or rehabilitative services available.

My husband said little about his military service, so for years we both suffered the effects of unrecognized PTSD. By the mid-1980s veterans’ groups pushed to recognize the service of Vietnam veterans and encouraged discussion about the psychic trauma many of them dealt with; and with that came opportunities for treatment and healing.

army veteran standing next to a floral bouquet at a memorial
We always visit the traveling Vietnam Veteran Memorial Wall when it comes to our area.

Through counselling and a support group my husband faced the past and gained a will to move forward. After reading a book , A Missing Peace, written by another Vietnam veteran, he considered taking a trip back to Vietnam and after much thought and prayer, signed up, although we were both apprehensive.

He chose to travel with Vets with a Mission , VWAM,  a faith based non-profit organization whose mission is “reconciliation” between former enemies in the Vietnam war, and also within the veterans’ themselves.

By touring the country and meeting Vietnamese people in peacetime, Raymond began moving past the painful memories and creating a new history. He found a country still suffering from the after effects of many years of war, and found a new purpose for his life- to help the very country that had caused us so much pain.

man with Vietnamese boys laughing
Raymond making friends and having fun with some Vietnamese boys

That trip led to another, and another, and another- thirteen trips  serving on volunteer teams to Vietnam with VWAM.  He served by teaching the computer technology he spent years honing and mentored Vietnamese professionals as they developed skills like his.

I accompanied him on many of these trips, serving as physician on medical teams, treating poor Vietnamese citizens in free clinics. We made friends with other veterans and their families, and with Vietnamese people, who often respected American Vietnam veterans more than Americans do.

Raymond found “reconciliation”  for himself and we experienced it in our marriage.  It was a process and still is.


All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:

2 Corinthians 5:18, VWAM motto
man next to concrete bunker
visiting an old war bunker on China Beach

As  a pre-teen I read a book about an American doctor who treated poor people in a foreign country. I developed an interest in  health care through that and other books, and decided to become a doctor. I dreamed of someday traveling overseas and treating people like he and other doctors did.

I didn’t remember anything  about him except his name. I did an Internet search and found his story- Dr. Tom Dooley. Now deceased, he served  a physician in the United States Navy and in the 1950s was assigned to direct the care of refugees- in Vietnam. (After his military service, he founded a humanitarian organization and tragically died young of melanoma.)

When I watched  the war in Vietnam on TV news,  I didn’t realize the doctor I had read about had worked there. I never imagined that I would ever go there. And I never imagined that war would indirectly help me meet my husband, and create a family that brings me joy every day.

When I said, “I’m available” I had no idea how true that would be.

man and lady dressed in dance costumes
And I never expected us to do a ballroom dance routine for an audience

 

 

 

 

Battle for TraBong Vietnam by Raymond Oglesby 

Raymond wrote a gripping account of his experience when his firebase LZ Cindy was  attacked in September 1970

 

We also recommend

A Missing Peace: Vietnam : Finally Healing the Pain 

by Robert Seiple and Gregg Lewis

“mothers,be glad” – Weekend Words

“Buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.” a proverb

Proverbs 23, ESV

Listen to your father who gave you life,

and do not despise your mother when she is old.

Buy truth, and do not sell it;

buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.

The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice;

he who fathers a wise son will be glad in him.

Let your father and mother be glad;

let her who bore you rejoice.

                                                                              ©Crossway

St. Augustine quote
graphic from Lightstock

St Augustine of Hippo  ( from Numida, North Africa) is the most important convert to Christianity, next to St. Paul. His mother Monica was a  devout Christian while  his father was a pagan. Monica raised Augustine as a Christian but he did not readily accept Christian belief or baptism.

He was educated in philosophy and rhetoric at Carthage  and taught in Rome. There he converted to Christianity, was baptized, and eventually became a priest and bishop.

Augustine  wrote prolifically, much of which we still have available today, including Confessions and The City of God. (source- Spiritual Classics)

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Trust-Proverbs 16

Bold as a lion- Proverbs 28

 

Thanks, I appreciate your support. Dr. Aletha 

In Oklahoma, a time to mourn and a time to dance

At 9:02 am April 19, 1995 the bomb exploded, destroying one side of the federal building, damaging several adjacent buildings, injuring 680 people and killing 168 people, including 19 children.

Until September 11, 2001, it was the deadliest terrorist attack on United States soil; it remains the worst domestic terrorist attack.

An annual event, the Oklahoma Challenge Ballroom Dance competition draws dancers from Oklahoma, surrounding states and as far away as Toronto, Ontario. Many return every year to compete against dancers who have now become dance friends.

The competition occurs at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City. Nearby is the Bricktown historic district with trendy restaurants, hotels,clubs, shops and the Chesapeake Arena, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team.

Also not far away is the site of the biggest “challenge” the city and our state has ever faced- the 1995 domestic terrorist attack on the Murrah Federal Building. On a spring morning in April, a terrorist parked  a rental truck on the street in front of the building; the truck contained a  5000 pound bomb made of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.

A morning of terror

At 9:02 am April 19, 1995 the bomb exploded, destroying one side of the federal building, damaging several adjacent buildings, injuring 680 people and killing 168 people, including 19 children.

Until September 11, 2001, it was the deadliest terrorist attack on United States soil; it remains the worst domestic terrorist attack.

THERE IS

A TIME TO WEEP, AND A TIME TO LAUGH;

A TIME TO MOURN, AND A TIME TO DANCE;

ECCLESIASTES 3:4, ESV 

A day of remembrance

On April 19, 2000 ,the Oklahoma City National Memorial was dedicated ; the Museum opened a year later.  I have visited several times, and always come away having seen and learned something new. If you ever travel through Oklahoma, I recommend you put this on your must-see list. When you come,  here are some of the images you will see and experience. 

OKC memorial and federal building in the distance
the West Gate of the memorial looking northwest toward the new federal building
Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum entrance
Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum entrance
window at the museum
window from the museum overlooking outdoor memorial
Memorial pool and chairs
168 lighted chairs sit on the south lawn of the Memorial.
gold statue shaped like a chair
There is a gold chair for each person who died from the bombing that day.

A lifetime of honor

In the days ,weeks and months following the attack ,we learned all the details about the bombing- the perpetrators, the victims, the rescuers, the survivors.

168 Oklahomans lost their lives there that day, including 19 children.

My husband and I visited the site after the wreckage was imploded and the site was fenced off. The fence became a makeshift memorial, as people left mementos of all kinds- dolls, stuffed animals, photos, pictures, flowers, crafts, flags, shirts, letters.  

We have visited again since the official memorial  and the museum were established on April 19, 2000. Sections of the fence were left intact, and people still leave mementos; others became part of the museum collection.

2016-03-07 12.05.50
2016-03-07 12.08.17
2016-03-07 12.12.19
2016-03-07 12.11.04

A long section of the original fence has been left intact, as well as parts of the original federal building wall.

sections of damaged wall
sections of damaged wall

Until 9/11, it was the deadliest act of terrorism on United States soil.

"We search for the Truth" written on a wall.
On the wall of the Journal Record Building which was also damaged by the blast; the museum now occupies part of it.

The perpetrators were caught and brought to justice. The driver of the truck was convicted, sentenced to death, and died by execution. The another remains in prison for life.

That day in Oklahoma City showed the best  in our state and our country as people, some with no training , risked their lives to help rescue people who were injured and trapped inside. Firefighters and police came from all over the United States to help. People donated food and first aid supplies.

children and adults visiting a wall decorated with handprints
Schools regularly bring students to visit the memorial and museum
colorful hand painted tiles from children
Tiles hand painted by children were sent to the city as a show of support and sympathy.
bright colored flowers along a wall
Pansies are popular in Oklahoma in the fall and spring.

I was proud to be an Oklahoman then and now, and still grieve for the lives we lost that day.

The Survivor Tree
The Survivor Tree, an American elm, survived the blast and is part of the Memorial.

 

statue of Christ with head bowed
statue of a grieving Christ, in the courtyard of a church across the street from the memorial

 

“We remember that moment that is framed forever by these twin gates. Our place of remembrance is filled with those symbols (ribbons, angels, flags) and also filled with love-the love of countless Americans whose ideas and support and contributions helped create this beautiful memorial.

On April 19 five years ago the flag of our nation was flying over the Murrah building. It is flying over our memorial today, and flies proudly in our hearts.

For those who perpetrated this act, we have one message:

In America you can speak and vote and complain, but there is no right to maim and bomb and kill…and if you think you’ll bring that flag down, there is your answer.

We are all Oklahomans today, and we are all Americans. May God continue to bless our beloved land. “

Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, April 19, 2000

quote from The Official Record of the Oklahoma City Bombing, published by Oklahoma Today Magazine 

remembering the HEART of health

I appreciate all of you who follow this blog; there are numerous other blogs to choose from so I am honored you chose to spend some time here. A special welcome to all my new followers from this past month.

I would love for you to start following Watercress Words : use this form to get an email notification of new posts . Please find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. Thanks so much.

                              Dr. Aletha 

Psalm 34 in Weekend Words- II

Psalm 34: 7-10

New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)

 

The angel of the Lord stands guard
    around those who have respect for him.
    And he saves them.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.
    Blessed is the person who goes to him for safety.
You holy people of God, have respect for the Lord.
    Those who respect him have everything they need.
10 The lions may grow weak and hungry.
    But those who look to the Lord have every good thing they need.

Old North Church, Boston
The Old North Church , the oldest surviving church building in Boston, Massachusetts and one of its most visited historical sites.

The Old North Church 

 

 

Weekend words is a regular feature of watercress words. At the end of the work week we break from exploring medical topics to read words of faith, hope and love from the Bible and other carefully selected writings.

Please follow this blog for more Weekend Words and posts that 

inform, instruct and inspire you to explore the HEART of HEALTH 

 

Previously –Psalm 34: 1-5      Psalm 121

 

 

Working Stiff -a book review to remember 9/11

When she applied for a position in New York City at the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), Dr. Judy Melinek never imagined that decision would plunge her into the nightmare of September 11, 2001. She was at the ME office that day when the Twin Towers were attacked and fell, killing thousands of people.

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies,

and The Making of a Medical Examiner,

by Judy Melinek, M.D.and T.J. Mitchell

Working Stiff, a book

The author, Judy Melinek, M.D., wrote this  account of her training as a forensic pathologist, a physician specialist who investigates sudden, unexpected or violent deaths. Her husband, T.J. Mitchell co-authored.

When she applied for a position in New York City at the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), Dr. Judy Melinek never imagined that decision would plunge her into the nightmare of September 11, 2001. She was at the ME office that day when the Twin Towers were attacked and fell, killing thousands of people.

The main job of a medical examiner is to investigate death by examining a corpse- an autopsy. They look for evidence of cause of death, was it due to disease or trauma, and time of death, was it recent or remote. They hunt for signs that the death was self or other inflicted. Sometimes they may even need to establish the identity of the corpse.

Such was the case after September 11. She and the other staff collaborated with the team of investigators who worked night and day identifying remains of the victims, a task she vividly describes in the book. This was basically their only job, since the cause of death was for the most part irrelevant, and impossible to determine. Sometimes they had only a small body part, as little as a finger, to extract DNA to identity a victim. Such identification was critical to bring closure to the families who lost loved ones, people who left for work that day, and never came home.

Dr. Melinek describes not only the science of what she was doing, but also the emotion behind it; how she and the other medical examiners and staff felt about their work. She describes how it affected her relationship with her husband and young son, the problem of explaining to him what she was seeing and experiencing on a daily basis. She didn’t have the heart to tell him how many trailers full of partial bodies there were, after he saw just one and was shocked.

She also discusses other cases she worked on.  As a forensic pathologist, Dr. Melinek  understands why and how people die, and therefore also knows how people can avoid dying unexpectedly. Pathologists tend to be blunt, straightforward and to the point, as when she writes,

“So don’t jaywalk.

Wear your seat belt when you drive.

Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise.

Watch your weight.

If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If your aren’t, don’t start.

Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad.

You know that yellow line on the subway platform? It’s there for a reason.

Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.” 

Working Stiff moves at a quick pace, in a conversational style. When she uses medical jargon, she explains it in simple terms. She describes the cases she investigated in detail so those with weak stomachs (no pun) may want to skip this read.

Having experienced her father’s unexpected death when she was 13 years old, she was no stranger to it, and she learned more from the 262 autopsies she did during her training. As she says in this engaging memoir,

To confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you have to love the living.” 

Here is a link to Dr. Melinek’s blog

Forensic Pathology Forum 

Statue of Liberty
Lady Liberty lifting her torch in New York harbor


 

Links to other  literature about the medical consequences of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001

City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11

by Anthony DePalma

“In City of Dust, Anthony DePalma offers the first full accounting of one of the gravest environmental catastrophes in United States history. The destruction on 9/11 of two of the world’s largest buildings unleashed a vortex of dust and ash that blotted out the sun and has distorted science, medicine and public policy ever since.

The likely dangers of 9/11’s massive dust cloud were evident from the beginning, yet thousands chose not to see. Why?

As the sickening results of exposure became evident, many still refused to recognize them. Why?

The consequences are still being tallied in the wasted bodies and disrupted lives of thousands who gave their all when the need was greatest, but whose demands for justice have been consumed by years of politics and courtroom maneuvers. Why?

Separating reality from myth – and doing so with exceptional literary style and grace. DePalma covered Ground Zero for The New York Times for four years. DePalma introduces heroic firefighters, dedicated doctors and scientists, obsessive city officials, partisan politicians, aggressive lawyers, and compassionate judges and reveals the individual decisions that destroyed public trust, and the desperate attempts made to rebuild it.

The dust that was the World Trade Center has changed everything it touched. This is the story of that dust, the 9/11 disaster after the disaster, and what it tells us about ourselves and our future.”

(Amazon review)

mounted police officer
a New York City police officer and his horse represent the city proudly

Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors

by Dr. Robin Stern and Courtney E. Martin

“Written in conjunction with the documentary Rebirth, a full decade in the making, an uplifting look at the lives of nine individuals whose lives were forever changed by the largest tragedy our nation has ever faced.

In Project Rebirth, a psychologist and a journalist examine the lives of nine people who were directly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. Written concurrently with the filming of a forthcoming documentary, it is uniquely positioned to tackle the questions raised about how people react in the face of crippling grief, how you maintain hope for a future when your life as you knew it is destroyed, and the amazing ability of humans to focus on the positive aspects of day-to-day living in the face of tragedy.”

(Amazon review)

NYFD engine
honoring the brave NYFD firefighters who rescued survivors and those who lost their lives doing so

At Morgue, Ceaselessly Sifting 9/11 Traces

“Outside the chalk-white tent, the whistle of traffic along the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive signals the forward movement of a city. But inside, 16 refrigerated trailers hum in a ceaseless chorus, giving voice to the dead whose remains are contained in their hold.

The trailers hummed as time separated the city from the 11th of September: as the smoking mountain of what had been the World Trade Center became a yawning hole; as 1.6 million tons of debris were sifted through on a Staten Island landfill; as commemorative services caused heads to bow. They hummed and they continue to hum, a mantra-like reminder that talk of closure is premature.”

(excerpt from newspaper article)

Public health and medical disaster responses: The untold story of 9/11

By Kelly B. Close, MD

former National Coordinator of Disaster Volunteers for the American Red Cross

“You never know when your life is going to change.

My red business suit was almost buttoned, and I was rehearsing my presentation for the Milford, Connecticut Red Cross board of directors, even though my mind kept wandering to my wedding just nine days earlier in Walt Disney World. An urgent call from my new husband to come to the television interrupted my wedding day dreams. As soon as I saw the images of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, I knew that my plans for the day – maybe even my life – had changed.”

(excerpt from article at ems1.com)

Triumph Over Terror

by Bob Ossler with Janice Hall Heck

“What do Ossler’s insights reveal about finding meaning and purpose in the thick of chaos and personal tragedy? Chaplain Ossler chronicles the best of humanity—acts of courage and goodness in the midst of unimaginable devastation. As terrorist attacks continue to assault humanity, “Triumph Over Terror” reveals how your spirit can triumph over terror’s reign, and how you can help others suffering from trauma and loss.”

(Amazon review)

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exploring the HEART of history and health

I took the photos in this post on a visit to New York City, one of my favorite vacations.

I appreciate all of you who follow this blog; there are numerous other blogs to choose from so I am honored you chose to spend some time here. A special welcome to all my new followers from this past month.

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                              Dr. Aletha