Feb 20, 2014
By Leah Geller

On call in Nunavut

Padma Suramala brings resilience and generosity to her role as chief coroner

Teckles Photography Inc.

Padma Suramala was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following the crash of First Air flight 6560 near Resolute Bay. As chief coroner for Nunavut, it had been her job to examine the bodies of the 12 who were killed, attend the autopsies and contact the loved ones.

Sleeping pills, sessions with a counsellor and a brief vacation with her husband helped her cope, and she was able to return to work five weeks later.

Born into a military family in India, Suramala arrived in Nunavut in 2005 through a placement with an agency. She had just retired after serving 21 years as a nurse in the Indian army, working primarily in intensive care units as a charge nurse.

“I thought all of Canada would look like the landscape of Toronto, but my first posting was in Cambridge Bay, more than 3,000 kilometres north — nothing but barren land and snow. I took a deep breath and told myself I could tough it out there for two years.”
When that contract ended, Suramala moved to Iqaluit and Qikiqtani General Hospital, working as a charge nurse in obstetrics and in the ICU. A justice of the peace, whose wife had been admitted to the hospital, was impressed by her compassionate care. He mentioned her name to the chief coroner during a discussion about the demands of their roles.

When the chief coroner went on sick leave, Suramala was asked to fill in. “It was very difficult,” she says. “I basically had two full-time positions.” She decided to give up her nursing job when it was clear that this individual wasn’t returning.
This is her fourth year in the role. Suramala oversees the investigations of most of the sudden, suspicious or otherwise unexpected deaths in Nunavut. Her schedule and the availability of those who act as local coroners in the regions outside the capital dictate the frequency and duration of her travels across the territory. She supervises and provides on-the-job training to this team of about 20 lay coroners, each of whom is paid a stipend per case. Cases involving murder, multiple deaths or that are otherwise extraordinary fall to her: “About three-quarters of the death investigations are done by me.”

Suramala does external examinations of the deceased and collects fluid samples for toxicology. There are documents from medical records, RCMP reports and witness statements to collect and pore over. She arranges for autopsies, talks to pathologists, authorizes the release of human remains to funeral homes and makes travel arrangements. As well, she writes each final report and prepares for, schedules, and presides over inquests.
“The work is not at all like what you see on TV,” Suramala continues. “I’m on call 24/7. I might get 15 to 20 calls on a case — some of them in the middle of the night — from people looking for answers.”

After an autopsy, four or five months may pass before her final report is released. Reports on deaths that require an inquiry can take as long as two or three years to complete: “The office work piles up when I am on vacation. The administrative part of the job can be quite overwhelming.” Without the assistance and support she gets from the lay coroners, RCMP officers, pathologists and nurses, she would not be able to manage, she says.
This chief coroner faces a unique set of circumstances. Other provinces and territories have a team of coroners based in a head office; Suramala is on her own. The territory’s population is only about 35,000, but her investigations number between 125 and 140 annually. And this past January, she made headlines across the country when she called an inquest into the high rate of suicide — at least 45 Nunavummiut died by suicide in 2013, she says.

Suramala says the emotional demands are huge, but her sense of duty is evident in the extra support she provides to bereaved families. “My office will buy clothes for the deceased or caskets for transport after the embalming,” she explains. “I try to attend local funerals and work with Inuit organizations to arrange free flights for families living far away so they can go to funeral services. These are small things I can do for people during their difficult times.”
“I’m a social butterfly,” she says with a laugh, when asked if she ever relaxes. “Iqaluit is a small town, but I like it here. I have many good friends, and volunteering keeps me busy. I love to cook and enjoy helping out at the soup kitchen.”

Suramala says she plans to stay on as chief coroner for another five years. “I’ve had other good offers for management positions,” she says, “but I love what I’m doing. I suppose it’s the independence, the autonomy and the opportunity to give back to my community.”

10 questions with Padma Suramala

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Dedicating my life to service in the Indian army and reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Travel, spend time with my family, volunteer and find a way to garden in the Arctic

Where did you go on your last vacation?
Kelowna, B.C.

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
I want to see Rome and get to know its history

What is your biggest regret?
Giving up my army uniform. I wore it with pride

What was the last good book you read?
The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Give the best you have to the world in whatever you do and the best will come back to you

What is the best thing about your current job?
Making recommendations that will help prevent unfortunate deaths

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
All individuals would be treated respectfully

Leah Geller is a freelance health and science writer in Ottawa.
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