“Science is my friend. Science doesn’t let me down,” once quipped the fictional medical examiner on the TV series Crossing Jordan.
Very likely, Karen Pansky, a Forensic Pathology Technician in Calgary’s Chief Medical Examiner’s office, would agree. Pansky’s job relies on science and her experience to assist in determining the cause of death in homicides, suicides and other suspicious cases.
“Basically, I do autopsies – the physical removal of organs from the body for post-mortem examination – under the direction of the forensic pathologist,” Pansky explains, estimating that the three technicians in her office conduct about 600 autopsies per year.
“When you’re doing an autopsy, you’re looking for the cause of death: a ruptured aorta, an overdose of pills in the stomach. If a homicide victim comes in with a gunshot wound to the head or chest, it might be obvious what killed them, but we still need to conduct a full autopsy to document the cause of death for the criminal court case,” she says.
“Of course, many people we see die of natural causes too; but if they have no known medical history. For example, we have to examine the heart to determine if they died of coronary disease or remove their brain to see if they suffered a subdural hematoma (traumatic head injury).”
Pansky participates in two or three autopsy procedures daily, and as well, assists local and rural police forensic identification units with fingerprinting.
“Our office also helps with the collection of trace evidence on the body, which includes fingernail clippings, sexual assault kits, fibres and hairs. We take toxicological specimens from the body – blood, vitreous (eye fluid) and urine for examination,” she says.
Working in the medical examiner’s office is not for the faint of heart – or weak stomach, Pansky cautions.
No, you certainly can’t be skittish. We see some very difficult things – from children that have to be autopsied to bodies that are decomposed beyond recognition. You need to be strong in that way, until you eventually become de-sensitized to it.
Pansky and her colleagues also assist the public when they happen upon mysterious findings.
“We get tons of bones and bone fragments in here,” she says. “People find them when they’re digging basements or Fido brings home a strange chew toy. They bring them in, we catalogue them or work with a forensic anthropologist to identify them.”
More often than not, the bones turn out to be from animals, not humans, but in some cases, even an expert’s trained eye has difficulty deciphering the subtle differences.
“In Alberta, we see a lot of bear paws but when they first come in, its difficult to tell the difference to the untrained eye, Pansky says. After completing a process that includes boiling down the bones, reassembling them and gluing them back together, the technician looks for telltale signs, such as the fact that bears’ feet have deep grooves underneath the bones to support the tendons. “That’s the giveaway,” she reveals. “Also, human anklebones face out on the same side as our little toes. In bears, it’s just the opposite.”
Pansky, 39, grew up on a farm in southeast Kelowna, BC. Being a kid surrounded by fruit orchards, a pasture of cows and a yard filled with chickens helped pique her interest in biology.
“I was interested in DNA from an early age,” she recalls. “Living on a farm, I was pretty biologically inclined due to natural childhood curiosity – catching frogs and playing with bugs and things like that.”
Pansky applied her interest to earning a Natural Sciences diploma at Calgary’s Mount Royal College. She then went on to get her Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of North Dakota where she was awarded an undergraduate scholarship and fellowship in biological sciences.
In university, I had a mentor by the NAME of Dr. John Williams who was a forensic anthropologist. Working with him steered me in the direction of forensic science. We would be called in to exhume bodies found across North Dakota – some missing persons cases, but mostly instances of bodies accidentally discovered by farmers plowing their fields. It was very interesting work.
That invaluable experience played a role years later when Pansky was offered the opportunity to travel to the former Yugoslavia to exhume bodies from mass graves for the International Criminal Tribunal.
“They were looking for forensic specialists to travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina, so I put in my NAME,” she says. “I received a letter from the United Nations asking me to participate for two months, but unfortunately, I received the letter two weeks late and was unable to go. It would have been a good experience. I hope I’ll have another opportunity to help.”
Closer to home, Pansky would like to lend her experience to female Aboriginal students who want to pursue careers in science. A second-generation Métis herself, she already has an understanding of some of the obstacles these girls face.
“They often have many outside influences distracting them or dragging them down; I think there’s a need to help these girls get past the hurdles and plan for the future,” Pansky says.
I say that if you find something you really want to do, do it – don’t let anything or anyone hold you back. Find someone who can help guide you, tell you what you need to do to achieve your goals and keep you motivated along the way.
Pansky advises that anyone wanting to stand in her plastic-wrapped shoes inside the autopsy suite should be well versed in science.
“Students interested in this area should study biology, especially anatomy. “Your best bet is to get experience and become known to people in the field. I would recommend volunteering your time at a hospital, a first aid centre – or even better, at a funeral home where you can get used to working with bodies