Bod­ies of work

A foren­sic pathol­o­gist needs an in­quir­ing mind, a strong stom­ach and, some­times, a good set of tree lop­pers. Joanna Glen­garry tells Metro about the re­spon­si­bil­ity of telling dead peo­ple’s sto­ries.


A foren­sic pathol­o­gist needs an in­quir­ing mind, a strong stom­ach and, some­times, a good set of tree lop­pers.

The scene: A car crash in West Auck­land, headon into a wall. Driv­ing con­di­tions are good. Bright sun, dry sur­face. S kid marks where the car left the road in­di­cate ex­ces­sive speed is a fac­tor. A young man is dead in the driver’ s seat, while his male pas­sen­gers its nearby with mi­nor in­juries, be­ing com­forted by po­lice.

Shocked neigh­bours have come out in force to rub­ber­neck. Mean­while, a youngish wo­man with short blonde hair and a cheer­ful dis­po­si­tion is as­sist­ing the po­lice. She takes a look at the car and the dead man in­side it, tilt­ing her head this way and that while she com­putes the scene, and takes a sur­rep­ti­tious look at the in­jured pas­sen­ger be­fore es­cort­ing the lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor out of earshot. “Your pas­sen­ger was the driver,” she says defini­tively. “He’s pulled his mate into the driver’s seat.”

Chal­leng­ing crime scenes are a nor­mal part of foren­sic pathol­o­gist Dr Joanna Glen­garry’s life. “The ones I en­joy are the ones that blow away your as­sump­tions, that aren’t what they seem.”

Glen­garry’s small of­fice in the foren­sic pathol­ogy de­part­ment at Auck­land City Hospi­tal is down the end of a nar­row hall adorned with pho­to­graphs of pathol­ogy teams, from the 80 sand ear­ly90s, per­haps: doc­tors in flares with long hair, large glasses, lab coats, bad knitwear. Their smiles hint at a pro­fes­sional life de­fined by hav­ing one foot in the land of the liv­ing, one in the land of the dead, and the gal­lows hu­mour re­quired for the role in be­tween. Her of­fice walls are lined with books, med­i­cal texts, piles of per­fectly ar­ranged files, a pin­board with pic­tures of her three-legged, gin­ger res­cue cat Monty, and the trea­sured qual­i­fi­ca­tions fram­ing more than 17 years of aca­demic study. She’s soon leav­ing this of­fice for an­other at Mel­bourne’s In­sti­tute of Foren­sic Medicine.

Glen­garry ex­udes com­pe­tence and ca­pa­bil­ity, a mind used to deep and de­tailed con­sid­er­a­tion. She re­turns to that fa­tal road crash in West Auck­land: “Our part is to find out if there’s any­thing in the driver that could have caused death. Al­co­hol, drugs, nat­u­ral dis­ease. You’re try­ing to match up the pat­tern of in­juries to the col­li­sion as well. The types of in­juries peo­ple get when a side wind­screen shat­ters are quite dif­fer­ent from the front wind­screen. The im­pacts will give cer­tain kinds of in­jury. With this guy, noth­ing matched for him be­ing the driver. The pri­mary im­pact was on the pas­sen­ger side, and the driver’s side was rel­a­tively un­touched. So the least-in­jured per­son was on the side of the car that was most dam­aged, and vice versa? He’d taken the time to get out and move the body of his mate into the driver’s seat. You can’t charge the dead per­son with caus­ing the crash.” She pauses. “Peo­ple say to me, how do you do your job? I say, how do the po­lice have to deal with peo­ple who think that’s an okay thing to do? Be­cause that’s a pretty shitty thing to do to your mate.”

When I first in­ter­viewed Glen­garry — for an­other as­sign­ment — we talked about some of the bizarre deaths she’d seen. She’s helped process the bod­ies of peo­ple mur­dered with nail guns, skip­ping ropes, of­fice chairs, power tools, ar­rows, and gui­tars. Then there are the gar­den-va­ri­ety im­ple­ments such as hands, feet, knives, bro­ken bot­tles, bats, guns, ropes, elec­tri­cal cords, and cars.

She will rou­tinely break up the rib cage of a corpse with tree lop­pers to get at the or­gans in­side, or pull out brains to weigh them and ex­am­ine them for dam­age. Think about that the next time the cat brings home a dead mouse or you freak out at the spi­der in the bath­room. Was she ever squea­mish? “No. When I was about 16, I had a melanoma re­moved and the GP said I was weird be­cause I watched the whole thing. I said, ‘How of­ten do you get to see what you look like on the in­side?’ I thought it was cool. Even here [at the mor­tu­ary], I can ap­pre­ci­ate things are pretty aw­ful, but it doesn’t make me squea­mish. The smells are pretty aw­ful but I’m used to them. I’ve just never had a weak stom­ach.”

I’m in­cred­u­lous about the tree lop­pers, but she as­sures me they are the best tool for the job. Then, later: “I like a bit of gar­den­ing. It’s a fairly new hobby, one I’ve picked up in the last cou­ple of years since be­com­ing a home owner. I just re­ally en­joy get­ting out­side and do­ing some­thing you can ad­mire after­wards with a cold bev­er­age in your hand. You’ve cre­ated some­thing beau­ti­ful, or done some­thing pro­duc­tive, and that’s re­ally sat­is­fy­ing.”

She’s also big on DIY. “I had a bliss­ful Christ­mas stain­ing the decks out­side my house. That’s dad’s in­flu­ence

— he was re­ally handy. When I went to univer­sity, other peo­ple were get­ting sets of pots and pans. I got a tool­box, which was just the best go­ing-flat­ting gift ever. Now I have power tools. I have a drill, and I love it.”

She has power tools at work, too, things like cra­nial saws, so I’m a lit­tle be­mused by her ex­cite­ment.

Glen­garry grew up in Napier and went to Ta­matea High School. “It’s not known for send­ing peo­ple to med­i­cal school,” she laughs, “but it had great teach­ers. It was close to home, so I could walk. It wasn’t a Catholic school. I’d been to a Catholic pri­mary and in­ter­me­di­ate, and when it came to high school, re­li­gious stud­ies just didn’t need to be part of the cur­ricu­lum.”

At 18, she left for Otago to study medicine. She says it was some­thing she’d al­ways wanted to do; there was no light-bulb mo­ment. None of her fam­ily were med­i­cal.

“Those Pa­tri­cia Corn­well books came out around that time, and I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘they sound fan­tas­tic.’ I can’t stand them now be­cause they’re so far-fetched and ridicu­lous, but at the time, they were highly en­ter­tain­ing. Any­one that’s re­lated to her or works with her is ei­ther a se­rial killer, the vic­tim of a se­rial killer, or some­how tied up with find­ing a se­rial killer. She’s just bad news.”

Af­ter six years of med­i­cal study, Glen­garry grad­u­ated in 2003, then com­pleted two years of sur­gi­cal study be­fore re­al­is­ing it wasn’t her pas­sion. “I worked out pretty quickly that work­ing 100-hour weeks wasn’t good for me, phys­i­cally or men­tally.”

A sur­geon sug­gested pathol­ogy, and she thought, okay. Five years of spe­cial­ist pathol­ogy train­ing fol­lowed, even­tu­ally lead­ing to au­topsy pathol­ogy, which she found she loved.

“I kept pes­ter­ing the clin­i­cal di­rec­tor. I’d turn up on Satur­day morn­ings, when rou­tine au­top­sies were done, or if there was a homi­cide, and say, ‘Can I come in?’” This per­sis­tence even­tu­ally led to a po­si­tion at the mor­tu­ary, where she was able to fin­ish her fel­low­ship. Two more years of train­ing, one in Auck­land and one in Mel­bourne, and she was fully qual­i­fied.

“I started univer­sity in 1998 and got my fi­nal qual­i­fi­ca­tion in 2014. Didn’t seem like a long time, at the time,” she says, dry as you like.

The scene: An apart­ment bath­room. A mor­bidly obese wo­man has ex­pired. Red, vis­cous liq­uid runs all over the floor. The place is a bio­haz­ard you will not find in any episode of CSI. Nat­u­rally, the po­lice sus­pect foul play.

“De­com­po­si­tion can mimic all sorts of con­cern­ing things,” Glen­garry says, mat­ter of fact, be­fore a smile ap­pears. “All sorts of mur­der­ous things. When bod­ies start to break down, liq­uid can come from the body, of­ten that liq­uid is red, and peo­ple as­sume it’s blood. When peo­ple find bod­ies in a pool of blood, they quite rightly tend to find that con­cern­ing. Like this young wo­man, who died af­ter her birthday party. They called me out to the scene: no in­juries, but with that level of de­com­po­si­tion? Ab­so­lutely. She’d ac­tu­ally died from liver dis­ease, prob­a­bly as a com­pli­ca­tion of her obe­sity. She’d been there for about a week. At room tem­per­a­ture.”

She pauses, re­flec­tive. “Aus­tralia was worse. When I ar­rived, Mel­bourne was hav­ing a 40-plus-de­gree heat­wave. Peo­ple were dy­ing from the heat. I got used to see­ing de­com­posed bod­ies. You nor­mally have a good idea at a glance whether foul play was in­volved. What it in­volves is a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the body at the scene, which re­quires some­one to help you, just a roll so you can look at the back. There’s gen­er­ally a re­luc­tance of every­body at the scene to want to help. It’s not pleasant.”

She gives me a keen look. She knows I am squea­mish, and I get a sense that she’s en­joy­ing her­self. “There are flies. Thank­fully, there are a bunch of hard-core po­lice, noth­ing fazes them any more, and they have all the proper equip­ment. That’s the prob­lem — you’ll get a de­tec­tive in his nice crisp white shirt, shiny shoes, nice suit. The uni­form cops don’t want their uni­forms soiled ei­ther, be­cause they’re go­ing to go to some other crime after­wards and the last thing they want is to be smelling like a de­com­posed body.

“There’s re­ally noth­ing you can do to make the smell any less. I’ve al­ways likened it to Ro­torua, which is no dis­re­spect to Ro­torua ... But when you drive in, there’s that sul­phuric smell. Af­ter a lit­tle while you no longer smell it. It’s the same with au­top­sies. They smell bad ini­tially, then you re­ally just don’t smell it any more. The prob­lem is you be­gin to smell just as bad. Which is why we have such lovely hot show­ers.”

Death has a smell all of its own. Tour­ing the mor­tu­ary, you are con­fronted with a ubiq­ui­tous aroma of hospi­tal bleach and hu­man de­com­po­si­tion. It’s what Glen­garry calls “a unique smell that’s the same in ev­ery mor­tu­ary all over the world”. If some of the things seen in this room can only be guessed at, then the ac­com­pa­ny­ing bou­quets are fre­quently be­yond de­scrip­tion.

Iron­i­cally, De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Scott Beard of the Auck­land CIB de­scribes Glen­garry as “a breath of fresh air”.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the po­lice and the mor­tu­ary is a spe­cial one. Be­cause their com­bined work links di­rectly to the ev­i­dence pre­sented in court, there is ab­so­lutely no room for er­ror. They work in a close part­ner­ship, along with the coro­ner. Yet some­how it feels deeper than that. There’s an un­spo­ken un­der­stand­ing be­tween them around the na­ture and im­por­tance of the work. Should you have the mis­for­tune to be mur­dered, these are the peo­ple who will be seek­ing jus­tice for you and your loved ones left be­hind.

Glen­garry has a strong re­la­tion­ship with the Auck­land CIB in par­tic­u­lar. Beard is full of re­spect for her work. Se­nior de­tec­tives are no­to­ri­ously in­scrutable, but he is sur­pris­ingly open with me over coffee in an empty food hall. He de­scribes Glen­garry’s work as ex­em­plary. “We work in part­ner­ship with a lot of groups — ESR, foren­sic pathol­o­gists — if we have a homi­cide or an un­ex­plained death. And Joanna is re­ally good. She’s al­ways got a smile, and while the na­ture of the work is quite macabre, she’s very ac­com­mo­dat­ing. If in the mid­dle of the night we have an un­ex­plained death, which we will treat as a homi­cide scene, we call her and she’ll come out, give an opin­ion. She’s very easy to work with.”

He low­ers his voice. “I’ve been at post-mortems with her, some of them very macabre or bizarre, but she knows what she’s do­ing. She doesn’t leave things un­turned, she doesn’t miss a beat. But that’s what we ex­pect, be­cause she’s the ex­pert. I of­ten have a lot of ques­tions which she is quite happy to an­swer. It’s the un­ex­plained ones where they re­ally have to work hard and con­cen­trate to find out [the cause]. It’s easy when you see a knife in the heart, or they’ve been shot. They do a lot of work af­ter the post-mortem, re­search­ing, test­ing, tox­i­col­ogy work.

“In the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion, some­times there’s no wrong or right an­swer, so it can be per­ceived they’re sit­ting on the fence. Peo­ple will say, ‘What was time of death?’ The time of death, the pathol­o­gist will tell you, is be­tween the last time the per­son was seen alive and when they were found dead. That’s the range. They’ve got to be care­ful, be­cause if they com­mit, and they get proven wrong, then their cred­i­bil­ity’s gone.”

The first thing Sergeant Heather Rud­dell of Auck­land po­lice coro­nial ser­vices no­ticed about Glen­garry: “She wasn’t ar­ro­gant.” Rud­dell echoes Beard’s com­ments about Glen­garry’s avail­abil­ity, ap­proach­a­bil­ity, pro­fes­sion­al­ism and hu­mour.

“There was the time we lo­cated a skull on Wai­heke. We should have phoned her, but we didn’t. We trans­ported the skull to the mor­tu­ary. It was found to be a six kilo­gram con­crete replica. She phoned us to say, ‘Re­ally? You couldn’t work that one out on your own?’ Some­one was a bit over-keen. Then she sent me a Google link to

I’ve al­ways likened it to Ro­torua. [Au­top­sies] smell bad ini­tially, then you re­ally just don’t smell it any more.

where I could buy one for my­self.”

Glen­garry re­ally en­joys the crime-scene work. “In any sus­pi­cious scene you go to, there will al­ways be ei­ther a box of [cask] wine or some of those RTD bour­bon and Cokes. That’s al­ways a sign that some­thing bad has hap­pened. Ad­mit­tedly, I see a bit of a skewed pop­u­la­tion.” She grins. “But go­ing to crime scenes is al­ways fun. Par­tic­u­larly if the po­lice aren’t ex­pect­ing me.”

Rud­dell bris­tles about the oc­ca­sional sex­ist treat­ment Glen garry has en­dured from some of t he old­erCIB of­fi­cers. “One of­fi­cer asked her when the mor­tu­ary was go­ing to send a real pathol­o­gist in­stead of a nurse.”

Glen­garry says other times, uni­formed of­fi­cers have ap­proached her be­hind the tape, hor­ri­fied at her pres­ence. “‘Miss! Miss! You can’t be here. This is a crime scene, you’ll have to leave.’ I don’t know what it is about me, they in­sist on calling me Miss.” Un­til they no­tice the se­nior de­tec­tives laugh­ing. “I gently ex­plain that I’m Dr Glen­garry, and I’m the pathol­o­gist. I can see the con­flict­ing emo­tions cross­ing their face.”

Glen­garry would like to see more women in se­nior med­i­cal po­si­tions. She be­lieves firmly in mer­i­toc­racy, but con­cedes, “I can be flip­pant about it be­cause of the work other peo­ple have done in the past. So maybe I am a fem­i­nist. It’s all about how you de­fine it.”

Rud­dell says most peo­ple still per­ceive pathol­o­gists as be­ing men. “She is rare in her field. She has a huge vol­ume of work. She’s had no life ... do­ing the jobs of two peo­ple and more, man­ag­ing and keep­ing up with that work­load. Mak­ing sure the fam­i­lies got their an­swers.”

Glen­garry is talk­ing on Ra­dio New Zealand in Au­gust last year about what one of her col­leagues has de­scribed as a po­ten­tially “cat­a­strophic un­rav­el­ling” of the coun­try’s post-mortem ser­vices due to a lack of re­sources. The Min­istry of Health pub­lic re­la­tions unit has swung into ac­tion, claim­ing the ser­vice is “sus­tain­able, sta­ble and op­er­at­ing well”. It’s a san­guine view of the sit­u­a­tion Glen­garry is ready to rub­bish. “There’s not a grain of re­flec­tion of what’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing in re­al­ity. No. That’s just not true,” she tells RNZ. She has 18 weeks of leave ow­ing. “I’m ex­hausted. I’ve be­come jaded and tired. I mean, I’ve seen first-hand how much bet­ter the re­sourc­ing is in Aus­tralia — there’s an ac­tive com­mit­ment to be the best that they can.”

The sit­u­a­tion has im­proved be­fore Glen­garry leaves. “We’re in a good space now,” she says. “We’ve had new staff come on board. We’ve had very good sup­port from some of man­agers at [the Auck­land Dis­trict Health Board]. They re­alised how dire the sit­u­a­tion was and have been very sup­port­ive.” Yet she’s still leav­ing for Aus­tralia? “That’s sep­a­rate. It’s be­cause the sys­tem is in a re­ally good place I can leave.” She’s been swayed by the op­por­tu­ni­ties on of­fer. “I’m leav­ing for my own am­bi­tion. I was of­fered a job at the big­gest in­sti­tute in Aus­trala­sia, and the ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties there are huge.”

The ra­dio plays in the mor­tu­ary theatre. “We de­bate about which chan­nel we’ll lis­ten to,” says Glen­garry. “Ge­orge FM, some­thing a bit more main­stream, Hau­raki.” There’s a note of dis­ap­point­ment. “At the mor­tu­ary it’s usu­ally just mid­dle of the road.”

I wres­tle with the in­con­gruity of per­form­ing an au­topsy to Justin Bieber or Ken­drick La­mar.

“Mu­sic gets me through,” Glen­garry says. She also finds read­ing ther­a­peu­tic. “Es­cap­ing into worlds other than this one we all live in. The best feel­ing is find­ing a good book and re­al­is­ing it’s part of a tril­ogy.”

Back in the real world, there’s an­other cop­ing mech­a­nism, a deeply black sense of hu­mour no one who works on crime scenes wants to dis­cuss. Eyes slide side­ways, feet shuf­fle. They worry out­siders would find it in­ap­pro­pri­ate. It’s a sen­si­tive sub­ject, even more so af­ter a New Zealand Her­ald story in May about al­le­ga­tions by a mor­tu­ary staff mem­ber and a for­mer staff mem­ber of bul­ly­ing and a lack of re­spect to­wards bod­ies.

Glen­garry is adamant her col­leagues are pro­fes­sional and re­spect­ful, and that any ex­cesses are well in the past, back in the “bad old days” when new po­lice of­fi­cers and au­topsy at­ten­dees with weak stom­achs made par­tic­u­lar tar­gets. I’ve been told sto­ries of po­lice hid­ing in the fridges and jumping out at their ju­nior col­leagues. Of un­pleas­ant gasses be­ing di­rected at an un­sus­pect­ing of­fi­cer or stu­dent at the mo­ment of in­ci­sion.

Glen­garry has seen her fair share of peo­ple need­ing to step out­side once an au­topsy is un­der way. But she’s em­phatic that her the­atres and crime scenes are not an episode of Fargo. Any black hu­mour is di­rected only at the pro­fes­sion­als in­volved, never the de­ceased, she says. Claire Barker, a foren­sic pathol­ogy tech­ni­cian with Glen­garry at the Auck­land mor­tu­ary, tries to ex­plain. “There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not jok­ing about some­thing that peo­ple out of that con­text would not joke about, but it’s just a cop­ing mech­a­nism. We do it with re­spect.”

Glen­garry says re­spect for the pa­tient re­mains para­mount. “I see my­self as the per­son’s last doctor. They can’t speak any more so it’s up to me to tell the story of what hap­pened. Some­times it’s to pro­vide an­swers for the fam­ily, so they know, some­times it’s pro­vid­ing knowl­edge and in­for­ma­tion to the po­lice and the courts so they can bring [some­one] to jus­tice. It’s not up to me to ar­rest the per­son, and in court we are in­de­pen­dent ex­perts, so it’s not up to me to avenge the de­ceased. But it is up to me to tell their story.”

All that death. Are there cases that re­ally get to her?

I see my­self as the per­son’s last doctor. They can’t speak any more so it’s up to me to tell the story of what hap­pened.

“Chil­dren,” she says, no hes­i­ta­tion. “Par­tic­u­larly schoolaged chil­dren. Death in that age group is ex­traor­di­nar­ily rare. Kids don’t nor­mally die. It’s al­ways hard. I had one lit­tle boy, he had his school uni­form on, his lit­tle polo shirt, and aw­ful in­juries from a car ac­ci­dent. He was a lovely-look­ing lit­tle kid. I find those the most chal­leng­ing cases emo­tion­ally.”

Does it leave her in tears? “There’s been a cou­ple. They come on un­ex­pect­edly. We spend so much time in­su­lat­ing our­selves emo­tion­ally, it’s ac­tu­ally re­as­sur­ing to know we’re still hu­man un­der­neath, that we still feel. So you think, that’s okay, that’s good. But then you have to move on from it: I’ve got that out of my sys­tem, now I’ve got to do my job. Am I emo­tion­ally scarred for life? No. But it does hap­pen. There is burnout.

“I’ve had dis­cus­sions with col­leagues where they’ve been af­fected by a case, and they never saw it com­ing. Didn’t pre­dict that would be the one that would hit them. We’ve got good sup­port net­works, but I think a lot of it comes down to hav­ing good friend­ships with col­leagues. The best ther­apy is go­ing out and over a glass of wine hav­ing a bit of a chat.”

For some­one whose job is to tell the last sto­ries of the dead, Glen­garry is re­mark­ably vi­tal, says Barker. “She has phe­nom­e­nal taste in shoes, even work­ing in theatre. We’re all wear­ing de­part­ment-is­sued gum­boots, black or white, steel capped, in­dus­trial-grade soles. But hers are bright red.”

Next stop, Mel­bourne. “She’ll be sorely missed,” Rud­dell says. “It’s very hard to get women in these po­si­tions, and then when you get one, you lose one. It is a shame. Some fam­i­lies find it bet­ter deal­ing with a wo­man. For me, it was good to have an­other fe­male there. She brought a dif­fer­ent dy­namic to the mor­tu­ary.” Barker agrees. “It will be a real loss when she goes, but I know it’s an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity for her.”

Glen­garry is philo­soph­i­cal. “I want to de­velop my­self pro­fes­sion­ally so that at some stage in the fu­ture, should the op­por­tu­nity arise to come back, I’ll be able to. I don’t want to have only ever worked here and not seen how it can be done else­where. New Zealand’s home. I’ll come back in the fu­ture. But I need to go now and spread my wings.”

RIGHT— Glen­garry in au­topsy at­tire.

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