A breakthrough for forensic pathology in Alberta

Dr. Robin Wirth is the first person to attend Alberta’s new forensic pathology residency training programBlazing a trail at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) – that’s Dr. Robin Wirth. Dr. Wirth is the first person to participate in Alberta’s new forensic pathology residency training program.

“It’s been an interesting and exciting time,” said Dr. Wirth. “It’s great to be leading the way in Alberta.”

The year-long OCME residency – one of only three in Canada – comprises general forensic pathology, pediatric forensic pathology, casework and other academic studies. It is designed to train forensic pathologists to be the future leaders in their sector, and will enable OCME to continue to offer excellent services to Albertans when investigating cases where the cause of death is unclear.

“It’s wonderful that this residency program is up and running,” said Dr. Anny Sauvageau, Alberta’s chief medical examiner. “It’s an excellent initiative, and we are very proud that it enables us to develop expert staff here in Alberta. Dr. Wirth may be the first person to train in forensic pathology in Alberta, but he won’t be the last.”

Dr. Wirth spent five years on an undergraduate degree in cell biology and genetics at the University of British Columbia, and then a further two years in medical lab science at the same university. After that he attended the Medical University of the Americas in the Caribbean for four years, before securing a residency in anatomic pathology in Newfoundland, which lasted a further five years. Then it was over to Edmonton and the new OCME program.

“I have learned a lot this year with the OCME,” said Dr. Wirth. “However, I wish it was as easy as the T.V. shows make it seem. For example, it’s not scientifically possible to determine a specific time of death.”

Under the Fatality Inquiries Act, OCME investigates deaths that happen suddenly or cannot be explained – deaths that are unclear. These deaths include homicides, accidents and suicides. The investigation determines things like who died, and how, why, where, and the approximate time they died.

As part of this investigation, an autopsy may be carried out that consists of an external and internal examination of all organs including the brain.

“The autopsy is just one part of what we do,” said Dr. Wirth. “To put together the whole story about the cause and manner of death, we may need to use other tools. For example, investigations can also include external examinations, police reports from the scene, medical history analysis and toxicology tests for substances like alcohol and drugs.

“It’s the variety that makes the job so fascinating,” explained Dr. Wirth. “Cases are always different. A case that looks straightforward may not turn out that way, while one that appears complex may be solved quite simply.

“And the people I work with at the OCME are amazing. It’s a great place to work,” said Dr. Wirth.

The future is looking bright for Dr. Robin Wirth. And thanks to this new OCME residency initiative, it is also looking good for forensic pathology in Alberta.

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