Money & Career

Why this doctor chose a career in forensics

Dr. Anny Sauvageau, a forensic pathologist, is the first woman in her position as chief medical examiner. She shares with Chatelaine the best advice she's ever got and her perspective on death.

Dr. Anny Sauvageau, Forensic Pathologist, Morgue, Jan 13, p114

Photo by Colin Way

Name: Anny Sauvageau

Occupation: Chief medical examiner for Alberta

Age: 40

Hometown: Trois-Rivières, Quebec

Training: MD, M.Sc., Université de Montréal

Q: What attracted you to such a morbid career?

A: When I was studying medicine, what I really liked was teaching and research, and I wanted to have a job that would cover both areas. Forensic pathology is about teaching all the time. For example, when you go to court, you have to explain complex autopsy findings to a jury that doesn’t necessarily have the same understanding of the human body—and if you can’t succeed in helping them understand, they won’t give your testimony much weight.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: I usually do three or four autopsies a day. As a forensic pathologist, I never know what I’m going to get: A case that might seem simple at first could turn out to be a homicide; a case that might seem suspicious might turn out to be a simple natural death. Every day is a surprise.

Q: What do you like most about being in the morgue?

A: I’m never bored. I had jobs when I was a student where I found myself watching the clock all day long. Now, I’m so into what I’m doing that I sometimes forget to have a bite to eat during the day, or I realize I have a headache because I haven’t had a drink of water for hours. I don’t see the time pass—it flies by.

Q: You look at things in a very scientific way at your job, but do cases ever get personal for you?

A: Human beings are adaptive creatures, and I’ve had to adapt to dealing with stressful situations. I keep my inner peace with yoga, reading, travelling (I’ve been to over 40 countries) and learning new languages (I speak French and English fluently, some Spanish, plus a little Italian, Mandarin and Japanese).

Q: Does dealing with death every day give you a different perspective on life?

A: Being a forensic pathologist, I see the body as a machine, and if I don’t take care of the machine, everything else won’t work. So I try to eat healthy and exercise daily. And I always make time for my husband, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan, through daily Gmail phone calls; it’s very important to connect.

Q: How does it feel to be the first female in your position?

A: That’s not something I like to focus on. I’m a little sad that this seems to have so much importance; it shouldn’t. We will truly be equal when we stop pointing out when a female is doing something for the first time.

Q: I read that you taught yourself English by watching TV at night. Is that true?

A: I grew up in an all-French-speaking household in Trois-Rivières. It wasn’t until I moved to Montreal to study medicine that I learned English, and you’re right—I watched a lot of Cheers, and later I got into Seinfeld (still the best show ever in my opinion).

Q: What is some of the best advice you’ve been given?

A: That great things cannot be done by you alone—you have to be a team player. On TV shows, there’s one very bright person who solves all the mysteries on their own. But you can’t approach forensic science like that. All of us have our own areas of expertise, and we have to work together to solve a case.