Doctor Death

She's the flamboyant celebrity pathologist fondly known as "Doctor Death" - or in her own wry words "the Lady of Disaster". But Khunying Pornthip Rojanasunan emerged as a hero in the wake of the tsunami. "I don't want to be more popular than this," she tells Joel Quenby.

Within hours of the tsunami's devastating strike, Dr. Khunying Pornthip Rojanasunand, director of the Thai government's Central Institute of Forensic Science, had established an ill-equipped, makeshift morgue at a temple in the shattered Andaman region.

"I didn't know about the severity of the damage," the 50-year-old pathologist says, fixing me with her steely gaze in her roomy office on Bangkok's outskirts.

The way she maintains piercing eye contact bears testament to years of reflexive, intense concentration; it's notable in a land where coquettish glances are more usual feminine currency.

"The interior minister sent me to the worst-hit place - and no one helped me, local companies, even the government.

"I had to manage the crisis on my own."

Indeed, when the prime minister's wife visited Dr. Pornthip at the temple, she was stunned by her workload, in almost inconceivably harrowing conditions - eventuating over 4,000 post-mortems within 40 consecutive 17-hour shifts.

"There were limbs poking up everywhere," English volunteer Kelly May, one of hundreds of foreigners and Thais who volunteered help at the string of temple-morgues in southern Thailand, told Untamed Travel magazine.

"These hideously deformed bodies swollen so much and so black that they didn't even look like humans."

May, who helped translate for foreign families searching for loved ones, says that Dr. Pornthip was a model of constant professionalism.

"I never saw her lose her temper once; I just have so much respect for her."

This poise under pressure is even more astonishing when you consider the bureaucratic bitching behind the grisly scenes. Some background: no-nonsense Dr. Pornthip is a confirmed moral crusader and human rights activist. "I like justice for the people," she tells me.

"I have to do only good things, without emotion or bias."

She famously wages a controversial one-woman war on official misconduct, often contradicting police findings - and sometimes publicly fingering their involvement.

"If I were a man I might be killed by someone," she growls, her eyes gleaming, perhaps betraying the hint of a smile."Maybe they think I'm just an ordinary woman who can do nothing."

This seems unlikely. This is the woman who initially became known for disproving the police verdict in the murder of her own student. The young woman's killer - her boyfriend, also an undergraduate of Pornthip's faculty and now serving a lifetime term - put his medical training to grisly use, dismembering his squeeze, dissecting her and flushing the remains down the toilet. Pornthip was memorably shown on televised news in rubber gloves fishing around in the sewage system for traces of her butchered prot้ege้.

She subsequently red-flagged police hit-squads during the government's anti-drug campaign in 2003. As a result, autopsies of victims of alleged police abuse are no longer carried out by the police's own forensic institute.

"I don't hate the police but they hate me, especially the senior staff," she says. "The local police officers appreciate me."

This power struggle resurfaced when Pornthip clashed heads with police bigwigs at the Phuket Disaster Victim Identification Centre.

"The government should be careful not to allow a single agency to have absolute power," she declared at the time.

Then in 2005 police spokesmen reignited the tit-for-tat, criticising Pornthip's preference for DNA testing over fingerprinting and dental records. She responded in characteristically brusque fashion that she was ready to be officially charged with negligence; noting that it was interesting that authorities waited a year, until the eve of the first anniversary of the tsunami, to broadcast their condemnation.

When I first met her in August 2005, Dr. Pornthip was distressed at Thailand's lack of emergency response strategy, fretting that "the government knows nothing about the management of critical incidents." More recently she has said they have "learned a lot" since that fateful Boxing Day.

For her part, "I brought three textbooks after the tsunami to re-evaluate.

"The first is on critical incident management, by someone with experience from 9-11. The writer of the other [Mass Fatality and Casualty Incidents: A Field Study] has experience from [the] Oaklahoma [bombings of 1991]. The last one's a British textbook of forensic medicine for disaster management."

The forensic specialist was decorated with the royal "Khunying" honorific in 2001; an award she interpreted as a symbolic seal of approval.

"I always dreamt of being in front of the king, like his dog," says Pornthip, who admits that she now feels safer with the title, though refuses to divulge what He told her when they met.

Voted a "Person of the Year" in 2003 by one of the Bangkok-based English-language dailies, Pornthip has been a regular fixture in local media since the late '90s. Her efforts in the wake of the tsunami, however, were recognized around the globe.

Her uncompromising designer-punk ensemble and trademark mauve spiked hair made irresistible fodder for the world's assembled press, especially when married to the earth-shattering drama of the traumatic circumstances.

"She came in, got down and dirty, and she always looked great," recalled Kelly May. "It was funny, but some of the volunteers even got their hair cut like her."

One often see Pornthip lookalikes emulating the doctor's flamboyant style in Bangkok. Today, beneath her lab coat she's sporting an olive green ribbed sweater dripping with zips, complemented by black combat pants.  She says she only buys clothes at a local French-owned store "because it's the cheapest.  The owner has to prepare more than 20 copies for people who want the same style as me."

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Dr. Pornthip is having none of it. "I don't feel proud," she proclaims. "I feel nothing about this."

Her detractors sneer at her regular appearances on television chat-shows, but it's worth noting that she earns a paltry government salary, supplemented by the dozen or so medical and newspaper columns she contributes each month, as well as the gruesomely-illustrated best-selling books about her cases she prolifically churns out ("more than 25" to date. Sample title: Tracking DNA).

Pornthip recognizes that her fame stokes her critics' and enemies' fires, saying "maybe the [post-tsunami] popularity and the celebrity" amplifies the authorities' enmity towards her.

"I don't want to be famous," she insists. "Just only want to serve the people. I don't care about money.

"We need to improve Thai society. I just want to transfer some of my beliefs to the system. That's why I've tried to establish a good institute and the Missing Persons Bureau. I don't want to be more popular than I am."

Jeff Ryan, a post-tsunami volunteer, saw bigger things in the doctor's future: "I saw Khunying Pornthip taking a small break and tending to her foot, which she seemed to have injured, but after only a minute or two she was back on the public address system rounding up people and showing true leadership under horrific circumstances," he wrote to The Nation.

"I told her that we all appreciate what she is doing and that if Thailand is ever in need of need new leadership they would be lucky to have Khunying Pornthip in charge."

But the woman herself demurs: "I don't care about the police. I don't care about the government.

"I'm an ordinary Thai person who must do good things in the Buddhist belief for the spirits of the dead. I think they are my friends, because only forensic doctors or scientists help them - especially me!

"I believe they can help me, so I'm not afraid. I ask them to protect me from danger, to guide my way. And for good things for the future."

-- Published by In Residence magazine, 2006


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