The Performer: Dr. Anny Sauvageau, forensic pathologist

On communication, workplace humour and how to avoid bringing your job home with you.


Dr. Anny Sauvageau, Alberta’s chief medical examiner, at her lab. (Photo: Jason Franson)

Anny Sauvageau stares death in the face almost every day. Alberta’s chief medical examiner since July—the first woman to hold the post—she is responsible for co-ordinating the investigation of all the province’s sudden or unexplained deaths. The native of Trois-Rivières, Que., performed autopsies in Montreal for seven years before moving to Edmonton in 2009. Since then, the 39-year-old has seen Alberta’s boom increase both its population and its body count, causing all three examiners in the Calgary office to resign last year. The woman tasked with rebuilding the department is up for the challenge—just don’t compare it to an episode of CSI. She spoke with Canadian Business reporter Angelina Chapin.

Years spent in postgraduate school: 12
Number of homicides in Edmonton so far in 2011: 40
Hours each autopsy takes: 1½-4
Average number of months it takes to produce an autopsy report: 3
Number of forensic pathologists in Alberta: 6
Number of forensic pathologists needed in Alberta by July 2012: 9

How do people normally react when you tell them about your work?
They are fascinated, and their first question is usually how it’s different from what’s on TV shows. To do a good TV show, you need one hero and the others are all dumb people that never got it. But in real life, that’s the worst attitude you can have. Our work is teamwork.
The second difference is the glamour of it. Our work is very interesting, but we don’t go to a crime scene with our long hair blowing in the wind. You have to protect the scene, which means we’re covered by protective material. We are not sexy on the scene. The scene is not glamorous. The other difference is that [on television] the science is exaggerated in itself, but mainly in the time frame. Television gives the impression that an autopsy report is available in two days. An autopsy report is never available in two days.

Not sexy? I thought you wore high heels when performing autopsies…
Yes, I have. I’ve been on a crime scene in high heels as well, but they were covered by protective [plastic] boots. So once I’m all dressed up, no one knows what’s behind all the paper and plastic.

What attracted you to forensic pathology?
What I like about forensic is that almost all our job is some kind of teaching and research. For example, when you go to court and explain your findings to 12 jury members who most of the time are not doctors, you have to present very complex scientific dilemmas or findings in a way they can understand. Same with explaining our findings to police. Even if you’re the best forensic pathologist in the world, if you’re not able to communicate in layperson language because you’re too in your doctor head, nobody can do their job well.

Do you bring something unique to the job as a woman?
In forensic pathology, I don’t think there’s a difference, but in leadership and management I think women are particularly caring. The value of nurturing staff and being there as a mentor is something women do better.

Sounds like your job involves a lot of communication. Since English is your second language, this must be a challenge.
A humongous challenge. It is very difficult, but at the same time it’s like anything in life where you have to use what you have. My English is not perfect, so I use it as a source of humour. Sometimes, in a very difficult conversation I make a little mistake and turn it into humour that I’m the victim of. That helps in relaxing the atmosphere.

I’m glad you brought up humour. I’m wondering what role it plays in your work, since death is no laughing matter.
Humour is commonly shared by everyone working in forensic. We are very respectful of the descendants and the next of kin, but we use humour to discuss everything else. Without humour, we wouldn’t survive. Our forensic team is teasing each other all the time, but as a mechanism to cope.

Do you have other coping mechanisms?
I take vacations, which I need regularly. I travel the world for five to six weeks a year. I never stay here. I have to go somewhere in another country, in another culture, so that I’m so exposed to new things. This way I have an easier time really disconnecting from the job, thinking of something else and marvelling at how the world is fantastic and beautiful. I’ve been to the Galapagos Islands and to Easter Island, as well as to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. My next trip will be to present research in Ecuador, and then vacation in Argentina.

You’re considerably busier in your new role as chief medical examiner. What routines are important for you to maintain?
I think of death every minute. Not actively, but it’s somewhere in my mind, which means I have a different view of the human body. I view it as a machine, and my priority is to always make sure the machine is OK and will give me good service for a long, long time. This means I take care to always have a lot of sleep. If I’m sleep deprived, I’m not a good machine. Having good food and taking pleasure in food is very important for me as well. The small glass of red wine, the piece of dark chocolate and the fruits and vegetables are important. I take time to do things that will refresh my state of mind. I exercise, but I also do things like cuddle with my husband, go shopping or do yoga.

You have an interesting relationship with death: though it’s inherently sad, it makes your job exciting. How do your reconcile those two things?
We have to be empathetic, but at the same time we have to close the little door in our heads and just do our jobs. We’ve been trained as doctors in emergency rooms or surgery departments to deal with these types of things. Take cancer, for example. Treating the disease as a doctor is a challenge and is interesting, but as a human being telling another human being they have cancer, it’s a hard thing to do.

I know death is clinical for you, but it must get personal sometimes. How do you deal with those moments?
We all have one or two types of death that are more troublesome. For me, I find it particularly troublesome when it’s a young woman killed by a stranger in a violent sexual context. I have a harder time not to imagine my sister or friend or colleague in that situation, you know what I mean? To do a good job, you have to take out the emotion, but afterward, you need more down time. That’s the type of day when I leave earlier, go home, and ask my husband to go out and have a nice dinner or go see a movie. I try to think about other things that make life worth it—to kind of swim in the beauty of life.