First in Class
Sitting Down With… Kona Williams, Junior Forensic Pathologist and First Nations Liaison at the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, Toronto, Canada
Michael Schubert |
What inspired you to study forensic pathology?
Medicine was a good choice for me because I always loved science, my grades were good, and I was always happy to help someone in need. I had some phenomenal mentors to help me along the way, too. One of the first physicians I met in medical school was a pathologist. She was (and still is!) an amazing teacher, and she inspired me to take up pathology as a career. From the first moment, it was fascinating – I got to see so much that my colleagues only read about in textbooks. Luckily, just as I was starting my anatomical pathology residency in Ottawa, a new forensic unit opened up there. Forensic pathology quickly captured my attention, and my mentors encouraged me to pursue it. I ended up doing a fellowship in Toronto, in a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. And the rest is history…
Can you describe your typical workday?
Work life is very busy, but each day is different. I spend a lot of my time in the morgue performing autopsies, which really depend on who has died overnight. Sometimes there are criminally suspicious cases – but, regardless of the cause of death, I learn something new each time.
As with any medical profession, there’s a lot of paperwork. I also spend time teaching residents, medical students and other health care professionals; I liaise with other experts in forensic science; I conduct research; and I regularly testify as an expert witness in court.
What is it like to be Canada’s first (and currently only) First Nations forensic pathologist?
There aren’t many indigenous people in medicine or the sciences. It was hard to be the only one for so long, until I met some of my medical school classmates. That was a revelation – and we worked hard to help develop the indigenous program at the University of Ottawa.
My background didn’t really factor into the equation until late in my forensic pathology fellowship. I didn’t realize initially that I was the only one who was First Nations. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but now I am the First Nations Liaison for the entire province at the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service. Because it’s a completely new initiative, it has been a rollercoaster of evolution – there is so much that can be done, and so many issues to be addressed. I’m only one person, but I’m dedicated to helping improve the death investigation system for indigenous people in Ontario.
Working closely with the cultural customs that surround unexplained death can be tough. It’s important to remember that each community is different – and even within the same community, different families may have different beliefs. Understanding and respecting this is crucial.
Canada’s size and diversity creates some unique challenges as well. Often, a body is transported from a remote northern community to undergo autopsy, which can mean days of travel. This completely disrupts the grieving process and many traditional practices that surround the death of a community member. If the death is that of a child or youth, the situation becomes even more complex and challenging. It takes a good understanding of all the subtleties to make the right decisions, and we must always make sure the lines of communication are wide open.
What advice do you have for trainees just starting out in pathology?
Keep your eyes and mind open. Find what you enjoy, and get good at doing that. The best feeling in professional life is to excel at what you do and enjoy it at the same time. And whatever obstacles you face, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love. Never give up!
What would you like other pathologists to know about forensic pathology?
It’s probably the one specialty where you can gather all the pieces of the puzzle, from what you can see macroscopically on the body to microscopic findings, radiographic imaging, microbiology, toxicology, biochemistry, and now the molecular autopsy… You need to be able to assemble all those pieces of the puzzle to determine how someone died. This information is so important to the family, and can have real implications for surviving family members, the criminal justice system, and the public. It’s a huge responsibility and a great honor.
Sometimes the only way to determine how someone died is by autopsy, and I like finding the answer. But the best part of my job? Being able to give families those answers. There’s a myth that pathologists aren’t good at speaking to families, but I really enjoy it – and it can be very beneficial for them to hear the results directly from me.
I would absolutely love to see forensic pathology become as well-known as other specialties in medicine. Most people have no idea what I do. It’s not like CSI on TV – it’s better!
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