Forensic pathologist Kona Williams on learning the language of the dead
“There are no physicians in my family so medical school was a huge eye opener for me,” says Kona Williams, MD, FRCPC, the only First Nations forensic pathologist in Canada. “Those first few weeks of medical school were like drinking from a fire hose.”
After flirting with Radiology, Anesthesiology and Emergency Medicine, Dr. Williams kept drifting back to Pathology, inspired in large part by the counsel of a professor and mentor. She was eventually sold on how diverse, interesting and challenging the specialty is.
“Nobody goes to medical school and thinks ‘yay, I get to work with dead bodies!’ Or at least most people don’t!” Dr. Williams says with a laugh.
“I like to work with my hands, I move around a lot. I ended up being really good at forensic cases — finding out how somebody died. I really like answers and I thought here is this specialty that will provide me with all the answers, not that it does all of the time.”
Juggling cases and seeking answers for families
In order to pursue the young and emerging field of Forensic Pathology, Dr. Williams went to Toronto for a fellowship after her residency. It was there — as one of the first two fellows to be trained by leading experts at a new state-of-the-art centre with top-of-the-line technology and a cross-disciplinary team — that she “fell head over heels in love” with the subspecialty.
“I couldn’t have asked for better training.”
One thing she loves about her job is that it is never boring. Some days she spends in the morgue or doing expert testimony in court; other days, she lectures or teaches at the medical school or students coming through the lab. On rare days, she gets to catch up on paperwork. Her role as medical director, Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology at Health Sciences North, also keeps her busy.
“I’m usually juggling 40-50 cases in various stages. When results come in I have to remember what goes with which case and focus on it. You need to be very good at time management.”
Dr. Williams is motivated by finding answers for families. Sometimes, it’s straightforward. Other times, the case falls into the 2-3 per cent where there either isn’t enough information or not enough information yet to determine the cause of death (for example, a skeleton in the woods or sudden unexplained death in infancy). Documenting information carefully and thoroughly can make the difference to someday solving these cases when new information or technology is available.
“I like the challenge of finding out about how somebody died. When someone comes into the clinic you can talk with them. You can’t do that with dead bodies; you can’t talk to a dead body but they’re speaking a different language and it’s up to us to interpret it and get as close to the truth as we can.”
Mentoring a next generation and making a name for herself at CBC
Dr. Williams’ father is Cree and her mother is Mohawk. She respects the responsibility and privilege of being “on the inside,” so to speak, of an investigative process that Indigenous People have largely been left out of.
“That’s why I try and mentor young Indigenous students to come on this journey with me and pursue Forensic Pathology. It’s a lot of work for one person to do. I don’t want to be the only First Nations forensic pathologist in 10 years.”
In the meantime, she will continue to dissect, test and interpret results, consulting with a large community of medical and legal experts, to try and provide resolution and answers — and maybe, just maybe, succeed in bringing some realism to popular portrayals of her work.
“I’m endlessly frustrated with portrayals on TV — like, the heart doesn’t look like that!” she says with a laugh.
“It can sometimes take months to get test results back and for everything to come together. I understand that they need to take some creative licence, otherwise it would be boring, but I’ve had it out with CBC a couple of times. They’re always really nice but I’m sure they know me there,” she says with a smile in her voice.