In her high heels and tailored suit, Alberta’s new Chief Medical Examiner looks every bit the part of what we’ve come to expect on hit TV crime shows like CSI and, more recently, Unforgettable. Television dramas have raised the profile of the profession, so it’s not surprising that the first question Dr. Anny Sauvageau gets from nearly everyone she meets is how these shows compare with reality. Her answer is blunt.
“In the glamour and sexiness of the TV show, they enter the (crime) scene with their high heels and their hair to the wind,” says the expressive Quebecer. “You would destroy the scene if you were to go like that, if you found a hair and it’s yours. We’re actually covered in paper.”
Teamwork is key to the job, says Sauvageau. Having one hero who saves the day makes for a good storyline, but that attitude is a nightmare in reality.
“In TV shows, they have the results of fingerprints in five seconds and DNA in 24 hours and that's not reality,” she continues. “That creates problems for us because next of kin think they will have a report from an autopsy in 24 hours. If we need toxicology, they will have to wait at least two, three months. So our staff has to explain 'I know it's like this on the TV show, but don't expect that in real life.'”
At the age of 39, Sauvageau is at the top of her field. An accomplished forensic pathologist, she is a published author, an expert on asphyxiation and in demand internationally as a conference speaker. She is also vice president of the Forensic Pathology Examination Board of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and is one of the founders and program director of the residency program in forensic pathology at the University of Alberta.
Sauvageau didn’t know forensic pathology existed as a child growing up in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, but she loved murder mysteries and Agatha Christie was her favourite author. The daughter of a former monk and a former nun, school came easily to her, but a strict Armenian violin teacher taught her the value of hard work.
“He was always telling me ‘If you stop practice one day, your violin will know,’”
remembers Sauvageau. “’If you stop practice for two days, ‘you’ will know, and by the third day, your public will know.’ If I had not had violin in my life, I probably would not have learned to put so many hours a day into something I want to achieve.”
She spent 18 years studying medicine and then forensic pathology at the University of Montreal, learning English by watching television at night. Recruited to Edmonton in 2009, she took over as head of the Alberta Medical Examiner’s office last July, the first woman to hold the post.
Her biggest challenge has been mastering the English language.
“My colleagues, my employees will tell me the words or the sentence that makes no sense,” Sauvageau laughs. “Where there is a lot of stress, it can change the atmosphere because I will make people laugh at my mistake. So it’s learning on the job.”
As Chief Medical Examiner, she oversees the investigations of all of Alberta’s sudden, unexplained and violent deaths. That amounts to roughly 3,000 cases a year with a staff of eight forensic pathologists in Edmonton and Calgary. Her office is also developing accreditation for the national association of medical examiners.
She loves the intellectual challenge of her work and how every day is like solving a new puzzle. For a curious investigative doctor, it’s the perfect job.
“Most people who come to see an autopsy are at first worried about how they will react, but a few minutes in, they almost have their nose in the body because they are fascinated. It’s a marvelous machine.”
Taking care of her own body is a priority for Sauvageau. She is adamant about eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep.
What she’s learned from death is how to live life.
“Death is the last taboo,” says Sauvageau. “Nowadays, you can speak about money, religion and sex. There are not a lot of things that people are still very reacting to except death. Death is part of life for us. We live every day differently, because we're fully aware that any day can be your last, that you can have an accident at any time. So why wait to be happy? Why wait to say you love your husband or your children or your mother or your father? Because we know it can stop anytime and I think we're relatively at peace with that.”
Lesley MacDonald is the producer and host of the Global Woman of Vision series. Stories can be seen the first Monday of every month in the News Hour at 6 p.m. on Global Edmonton and online at GlobalTVEdmonton.com