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Life underground: VGH Morgue


Above photo: (L to R) Amir Toosi, pathology assistant; Dr. Jason Morin; Leroy Bonaparte, Morgue mascot; pathology assistant Carm Zenone and Lisa Parker, morgue diener.

​In our latest installment of the VGH Life Underground series, we meet the team that keeps the VGH Morgue running. 

Location: VGH Tunnel – Jim Pattison Pavilion North

How many staff does the morgue have?  The VGH Morgue is staffed by three full-time pathology assistants and three forensic pathologists​

Hours of operation: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday​

How many autopsies does the morgue do? More than 400 in 2017

What is the morgue? 

The morgue is where the Autopsy Service takes place. It's the final stop before a decedent goes to the funeral home. The VGH Morgue functions as both the hospital morgue and the city morgue for Vancouver.

The true cause of death is not always obvious. For example, if someone is thought to have drowned, a pathologist may determine that there was a natural event that led to the drowning — a heart attack for instance. This is where the morgue comes in.

What happens in the morgue?

The team performs autopsies for VGH, Richmond Hospital, UBC Hospital, Lions Gate Hospital, the Sunshine Coast and Sea to Sky Corridor, as well as the BC Coroner Service and Yukon Coroner Service. 

Most autopsies at the VGH Morgue are performed for the Coroner's Office. The autopsy may be done to determine cause of death, to assist in a police investigation or to identify the body.

The decedent is usually released the same day as the autopsy is performed; however, the analysis and final reporting typically take several weeks.

“There would be a serious void in health care as well as the criminal justice system if the morgue didn't exist," says Lisa Parker, morgue diener. “There's a lot of crossover between the morgue and both systems. We provide key information to families about their loved ones. We also provide critical information for police investigations which contributes to the serving of justice — that's important work." 

How does the morgue support the delivery of quality patient care?

In end-of-life care, we provide families with information to help with closure as well as complete a familial medical history.

“You have to have empathy for what you're doing to understand what people are going through," Lisa says. “When you're talking to a family member, you have to remember it's one of the worst days of their life. It keeps you humble. We focus on the little things because they matter and we know that every decedent we care for has a grieving family. We often ask ourselves, 'How would I like to see my loved one when I get to the funeral home?'"

How does the morgue support innovation in health care?

The team adheres to the most current protocols and best practices in pathology and forensic pathology. 

“My background is in medicine," says pathology assistant Amir Toosi. “By performing autopsies and teaching pathology residents, I'm able to to use my skills to have an impact on the health care."

Their work informs the cause of death, which will eventually be entered with Vital Statistics. In turn, that information provides a real-time snap shot to inform where health care dollars are spent and how to approach the prevention of death (for example: the fentanyl crisis).

What else happens in the morgue?  

The morgue often identifies a Jane or John Doe by matching x-rays, taking DNA and fingerprinting the decedent.

In addition to the full autopsies, the pathology assistants perform Toxicology Only autopsies to obtain specimens for toxicological analysis (108 last year). Also some autopsies are performed for research programs (for example, CJD Surveillance Program in Ottawa and Biobanking for Spinal Cord Injury).

As a teaching hospital, residents, medical students, nursing students and lab technology students rotate through all areas of the hospital – including the morgue.

“I've been working here for 39 years," says Carm Zenone, pathology assistant. “I could have retired four years ago but I love what I do – teaching new residents all the things I've learned, watching pathologists I've taught move forward with their careers – it's a lot of fun."

Did you know?

  • The Coroner's Service once sent a husky to the morgue; it had mauled a three-year-old child. The team had to match the bite marks to the teeth of the dog.
  • Dr Jason Morin, one of the forensic pathologists, also trained as a chef.
  • Some of the pathology assistants have been hired on film sets to consult during autopsy scenes.
  • The morgue gets lots of visitors, including coroners, police and funeral home attendants. During homicide investigations there may be anywhere up to 30 people in the morgue.
SOURCE: Life underground: VGH Morgue ( )
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