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Department Profile: Division of Autopsy Services, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

It’s a chilling story that could easily be the plot of a murder mystery novel. Dr. Michael Shkrum, Forensic Pathologist and Division Leader for Autopsy Services, recalls a case from his fellowship at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina.

The story began in 1985 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Tim Hennis visited the home of a mother and her three children. Days later, he was arrested for a triple murder. During the trial, state prosecutors showed jurors graphic autopsy photos to illustrate their case. The jury initially found Hennis guilty and he was sentenced to death. Hennis' lawyers appealed his case, and judges ruled that the photos shown in the previous trial had inflamed the jurors. The ruling allowed Hennis a second chance to prove his case. Hennis was successful in his appeal and acquitted of his charges.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, new evidence in the case involving DNA testing came to light. And Hennisbecame the only person in United States history who's been tried a third time after a guilty and not guilty verdict. Twenty-five years later, in 2010, Hennis was once again convicted and sentenced to death this time in a court- martial under federal jurisdiction.

The Division of Autopsy Services at London Health Sciences Centre – University Hospital sees about 600 cases per year. And although not every case is comparable to a murder mystery novel, the cases that the division processes on a daily basis provide a vital service to the London community and beyond.

“Our service is a direct interface with the community when you think about it,” said Dr. Shkrum. “We interact with families and help provide closure for them, we meet with funeral directors, coroners, and police in the community.”

The team is made up of three forensic pathologists: Drs. Michael Shkrum, Elena Tugaleva and Ted Tweedie, along with a number of pathologists and pathologist assistants, and an autopsy coordinator.

The day-to-day activities in the division can be described as unpredictable at best. “There are days that are very quiet and we won’t see any cases, but other days we are very busy with three or four cases in a day,” explained Dr. Shkrum. “You never know what’s going to come through the door.”

Luckily, everyone on the team is always willing to lend a helping hand when needed. “Whether it’s consultations, or working on cases, we are a very collegial group,” said Dr. Shkrum.

The division also has an active teaching and research presence within The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Dr. Tweedie delivers an undergraduate Bachelor of Medical Sciences course called “Introduction to Forensic Sciences”; Dr. Tugaleva is the medical director of the Master of Clinical Pathologists’ Assistant Program; Dr. Shkrum is the director of the Motor Vehicle Safety Research Team that works with Transport Canada and the London Health Sciences Centre trauma program, and funds a master’s student who is conducting research that will ultimately provide recommendations for reducing rear-seat collision-related injuries in children.

Although the work that the division does can be regarded as behind-the-scenes, Dr. Shkrum is proud of the answers and closure that the team is able to provide to families, coroners and the greater community.

“We do excellent work. We have thorough reports, we are able to assist the coroners and police, and we have a strong research and teaching presence,” Dr. Shkrum remarked. “It’s all very positive, and that’s why I love what I do.”