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Coroners & Public Health; Fatality Is A Family Matter

Autopsies on television – they’re all the rage on NCIS, Law & Order, CSI . . . but do they miss the “real” point of a forensic pathologist’s work?

Yes, absolutely, as first and foremost, a board-certified forensic pathologist is a physician and often a public health official. Life Love & Health takes a peek behind the closed doors of the Corner’s office with Dr. Judy Melinek, MD, to discover why her work to so crucial to public health, the criminal justice and legal systems . . . plus a family’s peace of mind and need for closure.

Here’s an excerpt from from our show with Dr. Melinek :

Christopher Springmann: Your work has very serious legal, social, economic and public health components. In fact, you are a public health official and I’m sure concerned about issues of epidemiology because how and where and the circumstances people die in and around have a lot to do with public health. Is that true?

Dr. Judy Melinek: Absolutely. I think that that’s part of our job that has the least attention, because television and the news media tends to focus on the more violent or prurient aspects of what we do. And it doesn’t focus on the fact that when there is an epidemic the confirmation that the death occurred from that epidemic organism, as opposed to something else, or when there is an outbreak of some sort, we’re the first responders. It doesn’t always happen that a person shows up to an emergency room coughing and complaining of symptoms.

CS: You mean it’s not like House all the time?


JM: Correct. It doesn’t – not everybody presents to the emergency room. In fact, the most susceptible in our society, the people who are poor, the people who are on the edges of the socio-economic difficulty, they don’t often go to emergency rooms. And sometimes the first presentation of a serious illness or outbreak will occur with death, which makes us, our office first responders. Investigators from our office will come to the house after someone’s been dead, and they’re the first ones who are exposed and have to construct the medical history by interviewing the family, the friends or the neighbors.

CS: I seem to remember in the history of AIDS in the United States that forensic pathologists, along with dentists, interestingly enough, were among the first people to pick up AIDS, which at that time was known as gay cancer. Is there some truth to that?

JM: Yes. And here in San Francisco, where I work, it was really the first place where it was recognized as a condition. And the documentation of it was initially done at the medical examiner’s office.

Dr. Judy Melinek is a board-certified forensic pathologist practicing in San Francisco. She graduated with honors from Harvard University, earning her medical degree at UCLA , then trained in forensics at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where she identified remains from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Dr. Melinek is currently employed as an Assistant Medical Examiner ; and owns a forensic consulting practice, She testifies as an expert witness in forensic pathology in legal cases involving sudden unexpected deaths, medical malpractice, wrongful death and police custody. More information about Dr. Melinek is available at

Judy Melinek, M.D.
San Francisco