UBC’s David Sweet and the Bureau of Legal Dentistry are teaching military dentists from around the world how to identify victims of disasters.
Dr. David Sweet knows first hand the technical and emotional implications of disaster victim identification. He spent 239 consecutive days helping identify victims of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, including three weeks on the ground in Thailand that showed him the darkest and brightest sides of humanity.
“The tsunami claimed approximately 250,000 lives and literally wiped some areas off the map,” recalls Sweet, a forensic dentist and one of 5,600 disaster responders from 36 countries who assisted in post-mortem identification of victims. “The human body is so fragile against the enormous forces of nature – many of the victims were tossed around under water, smashed into trees, cars, and parts of houses. The destruction was unimaginable.”
While the sights, sounds and smells of the aftermath shook him to the core, it was the humanitarian efforts over the 16-month process of identifying 4,876 victims that re-ignited hope for Sweet and his colleagues from the British Columbia Forensic Odontology Response Team.
“Witnessing how caring and resourceful people were in this dire situation, being able to give someone back their loved one and provide answers so they can begin to heal was both the height of my career and one of the most significant moments in my personal life.”
In part due to his contributions during this and other disasters, Sweet was invested to the Order of Canada in 2008 and appointed Chief Scientist in Disaster Victim Identification at INTERPOL in 2006. Now he and the Bureau of Legal Dentistry (BOLD) at UBC are equipping international military dentists with the skills and fortitude to respond to tragedy.
Earlier this summer, 12 trainees from NATO and a coalition of American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand (ABCA) armed forces spent five days at UBC learning the latest techniques in forensic identification, some of which were developed at BOLD and used during the Robert Pickton trial in B.C. These techniques have also been used by the U.S. to identify the remains of al-Qaeda members.
“Witnessing how caring and resourceful people were in this dire situation, being able to give someone back their loved one and provide answers so they can begin to heal was both the height of my career and one of the most significant moments in my personal life.” – Dr. David Sweet
Trainees began their course in the morgue where they took photos and X-rays and performed a thorough dental exam – much like one your dentist might perform at your regular dental checkup –on cadavers. As the week progressed, they simulated scenarios such as missing persons, natural disasters and transportation accidents with multiple casualties. Military dentists can easily adapt these scenarios to situations that arise in armed conflict.
“The first thing we do is take away apprehension around the morgue,” says Sweet. “Military dentists are accustomed to working in war zones but dealing with the deceased presents a different challenge.”
In order to verify the identity of a victim, forensic dentists collect a large amount of information, which is is then checked against an INTERPOL database for possible matches. The process requires exquisite attention to detail, critical thinking and the ability to apply dentistry skills differently under extreme circumstances, says Sweet.
“For example, one of the core skills of a dentist is to read what is essentially two-dimensional ‘shadows’ on an X-ray image and be able to reconstruct it three-dimensionally,” says Sweet. “Such skills can be put to the challenge when you’re comparing a partial jaw or fragments of teeth to dental records.
“Yet the stakes are much, much higher because you want there to be no doubt that you’re returning to the family what may be the only remains of their loved ones.”
On the final day, trainees must take on a case, extract clues and defend their conclusions in front of an identification tribunal. If successful, they are handed a coveted certificate.
For his part, Sweet is looking forward to training more international responders now that NATO and ABCA have made the BOLD course their touchstone for forensic dentistry training.
“These remarkable military dentists have what it takes,” says Sweet. “All we do is give them the confidence to do it.”
David Sweet Video Part 1 (Download here)
David Sweet Video Part 2 (Download here)