My muse for “Murder Under the Microscope”

The basis for my first book, Murder Under the Microscope, was a female locum tenens who was hired, back in the eighties, to help with weekend call. Everyone on the medical staff thought she was wonderful. My techs couldn’t stand her, and I heard about it on a daily basis. Her method of drawing blood consisted of starting an IV and letting the blood drip into the tube. Her method of collecting a culture for gonorrhea was to smash the tip of the penis into the chocolate agar plate. When my techs tried to explain why she shouldn’t do it that way, she would tell them when they had gone to medical school, then they could tell her what to do and not before.

Eventually she started working during the week too, and that’s when I tried to talk to her about these things, but she attacked me. She gave me an earful about how incompetent she thought the lab was, and why. Nothing I said made any difference. Then she wrote a letter to Administration and the medical staff, all about how bad our lab was compared to labs at all the other hospitals she’d worked in, and how incompetent the pathologist was. When I found my copy on my desk in the morning, I went straight to the administrator, only to find that several of the doctors had beaten me to it. They assured me that the lab was okay, and so was I, but they were unsympathetic when I complained about how she was affecting the morale in my lab.

Nobody killed her. She was let go after three weeks, because that was when the patients she’d seen came back for their follow-up appointments and the other doctors found out about all the mistakes she had made, and what their patients thought of her. I also found out that she’d been as nasty to Radiology as she had to the lab, and that one of the surgeons had received a letter from her too.

When Murder Under the Microscope was published in 2011, that surgeon came charging into Histology where I was grossing surgicals, waving my book and laughing his head off, and said, “I remember that lady!”

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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.