Why I became a pathologist and how it affects my writing

In my series of Toni Day mysteries, Toni Day is loosely based on my own career as a pathologist in a small rural hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho. But how did I get there?

It all started when I was six and had my tonsils out. I told my father I wanted to be a nurse when I grew up. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

DADDY: “A nurse?! What for? Do you know what nurses do?”
ME: “Take care of people in the hospital?”
DADDY: “They do whatever the doctor tells them to do. You’ve never done what you were told in your entire life. Why don’t you become a doctor instead?”
ME: “But Daddy, I’m a girl.”
DADDY: “So what?”

This, in 1951, from a man born in 1890, had quite an effect on me. Daddy was clearly a man ahead of his time; and he never stopped supporting me when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and snickered at my answer.

Unfortunately, Daddy didn’t live to see it all come true, because he died when I was ten: but my mother never stopped exhorting me to work hard in school and keep my grades up, to get scholarships, because that was the only way I could ever go to college since she couldn’t afford it on a secretary’s salary.

So I kept my grades up, and got four scholarships that paid for my first year at Occidental College in Los Angeles. During the four years I was there, I had a job as well. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all that easy to keep my grades up, and I graduated with a 3.0 average, 3.3 in my major, not good enough to get into medical school. I watched in dismay as a brilliant girl in the class ahead of me failed to get into medical school with a 4.0 average. Summa cum laude. Phi Beta Kappa. I wasn’t even close.

I took the MCAT and aced it. I also took the Graduate Record Exam, just in case I ever wanted to go to graduate school, and aced that too. Then, after graduation, I enrolled in a medical technology internship at the Long Beach VA Hospital, while going around interviewing at medical schools. My brother, who lived in Virginia, insisted that I apply to Georgetown, and I did just to shut him up.

To my surprise, I actually got into not one but two medical schools, the University of California, Irvine, and …wait for it…Georgetown.

My brother was not happy that I stayed in California, but he had to admit my reasons were good. UCI offered financial aid, Georgetown did not. Besides that, I had a boyfriend and a car, and I wanted to keep both.

So I went to UCI, and worked my way through as a medical technologist at Long Beach Community Hospital, where I met my future husband, John Munro, also a med tech.

One day, a fellow tech who had been hired more recently than I, asked why we did certain things a certain way, when he had been taught differently. As a part-time employee, I wasn’t qualified to tell him that, nor could I do anything about it. In order to do anything about it, I would need to have my own lab, and to for that I would have to be a pathologist.

So I became one. John and I were married in my first year of residency, and when my residency was finished, I got a job at the Twin Falls Clinic & Hospital, a small rural doctor-owned clinic and hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho, and the rest is history. (For more, check out my blog: My inspiration for the Toni Day Mystery series).

As a practicing pathologist, my writing contains realistic and believable medical and forensic information, with the medical jargon softened by Toni explaining it to her husband Hal, much as I used to explain it to John. Most people don’t really know what a pathologist is or what we do, or they think all we do is autopsies. I hope my writing gives them an idea of what hospital-based pathologists do all day.

Actually, hospital autopsies are quite rare nowadays, because of advanced imaging techniques that give radiologists the capability of sampling just about any part of the body with a needle. But when I first came to Twin Falls in 1977, I did quite a few autopsies, in funeral homes because our hospital didn’t have a morgue. All the forensic autopsies from Twin Falls County went to the county hospital, but I ended up doing forensic autopsies for the surrounding Jerome, Cassia, Minidoka, Gooding and Blaine counties.

Luckily for me, that came to a screeching halt when the county hospital bought us out and I joined their pathology group. After that, all forensic autopsies went to Boise, and they still do.

But in the 24 years at the Twin Falls Clinic & Hospital, I got plenty of fodder for my books, and I’ve just barely begun to use it.


My inspiration for the Toni Day Mystery series

It all started with Murder She Wrote.

All doctors think about retirement, whether it’s making enough money to retire early, or whether they can afford to retire at all, or where they want to live when they retire, and all the fun they’ll have after they do retire.

My husband had a dream of selling the house and living in a motor home and traveling all over the country when I retired, never staying long in one place. I didn’t want that, so I decided to keep working until he got over it. That wasn’t our only point of dissension, and in 2004 we divorced, so I didn’t have to worry about that any more.

In my case, I thought about what I would do to pass the time after retirement, because I’ve known too many doctors who retired and then died. Of boredom? Who knows?

But when Murder She Wrote came on TV, I decided I wanted to be Jessica Fletcher when I grew up. My husband gifted me with a word processor for Christmas, and I sat right down and started writing what is now my first Toni Day mystery, Murder Under the Microscope.

In 1985, when I had less than ten years of pathology practice under my belt at a tiny rural hospital, a locum tenens, or temporary, physician was hired to help with weekend call. The first thing she did was pick a fight with me, verbally abuse my lab techs, and circulate derogatory information about how incompetent the lab and pathologist were.

Nothing happened, of course, and she was gone after three weeks, but in the meantime she did a real number on my self-esteem, and I got no visible support from my medical colleagues. That was when the first seed was planted, and I decided that someday I would kill her off in a book.

In 1982, a sleazy lawyer got our entire medical staff ensnared in a leasing company, which was intended to avoid taxes, and worked quite well until1987 and Black Monday. It all fell apart, the IRS swooped in, and the doctors ended up owing hundreds of thousands in back taxes, interest and penalties. Luckily, I hadn’t gotten involved in the first place, but the whole thing adversely affected the hospital’s bottom line, and I think it was ultimately responsible for us having to sell out to the county hospital in 2001.

I killed him off in Too Much Blood.

In 1995, we acquired a new hospital administrator, who, not to mince words, was a pathological liar and treated employees like shit. I killed him off in Grievous Bodily Harm.

My best friend Rhonda and I were at a party where a friend of ours introduced us to one of her daughters. When she told her daughter that I was a pathologist, the daughter exclaimed, “Eww, you do autopsies? On dead people?”

I explained to her that we are limited to dead people because those live ones complain too much, and Rhonda said that it would be death by autopsy. Ever since, Rhonda has been telling me that I had to write a book called Death by Autopsy, so I did.

In 2013, I was on a Caribbean cruise with a gentleman friend, and we were sitting up on the Lido deck one day when it began to rain, and they had to close the roof. As I watched those massive gears closing the roof with a cacophony of creaks and groans, it occurred to me what a dandy way that would be to murder somebody and have it look like an accident. The result was The Body on the Lido Deck.

Throughout all these stories, Toni’s mother, Fiona, had objected to Toni’s getting involved in matters best left to the police and putting herself in danger. I thought it was about time that Fiona actually had to ask Toni to get involved, and consequently Toni and Hal return to their hometown of Long Beach, California, in A Deadly Homecoming.

One of the editors of Murder Under the Microscope commented that it was too bad that “the awful Robbie” had been sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder, because she was hoping he would show up in future books. “I love a good villain,” was what she said. So I’m resurrecting him in my seventh Toni Day Mystery, with the working title The Twelve Murders of Christmas.

Incidentally, I still haven’t retired.