Forensic Pioneers in Pakistan
Published on 6 July 2021
Falak Syed and Suman Shoro are the first and only female forensic odontologists in Pakistan. Together they used their expertise to shed light on one of the biggest airline disasters in their country’s recent history.
It was the day before Eid, one of the largest and most sacred of holy events for Muslims across the world. Passengers on the Pakistan International Airlines Flight PK8303 were travelling from Lahore to Karachi to share the festival celebrations with friends and family.
Sadly, the plane failed to make a safe landing and crashed into a residential area. Only two passengers survived. An hour later, Falak and Suman received a call. They packed their bags and prepared for work on the crash site.
Falak and Suman are the second and third forensic odontologists in Pakistan, graduating with a Master of Forensic Odontology (MFOdont) from Dundee in 2019. Forensic odontology is a field of dentistry which involves the examination, handling and presentation of dental evidence for the legal system with disaster victim identification part of their Dundee training.
On arrival they swiftly put their knowledge into practice, using their hotel as a base for their work.
“While most people were celebrating Eid, the families of the passengers were mourning their loss. We were trying to get as much information as we could about the victims, visiting the head office of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to collect passenger data. We were given a team of support staff who we trained how to retrieve information from the victims’ family; the right questions asked with the right tone. Then our team spent three days setting up a temporary mortuary where we could perform dental autopsies and oral examinations. We were working approximately 16 hours on site a day - some days from 9am to 4am the next day.”
For Falak, the personal impact they felt was challenging but rewarding.
“We spent our last fast of Ramadan and Eid working for those victims. This experience exposed us to the dark areas of dentistry as the trauma of working with corpses was intense. At times we worked like robots to get the task done but also to avoid having to feel, think or respond. But it was worthwhile as the families were thanking us for our results. Compared to the DNA, our results were quick, economic and definite.”
Through their work, Falak and Suman were able to identify 14 bodies, helping to give victims’ families closure.
Forensic odontology is still a relatively unknown field of dentistry in Pakistan. This was highlighted to them by a speaker at dental conference they organised in their final year of their undergraduate degree.
“A senior police official told us that our country is not only prone to natural disasters, but negligence and crime has increased the number of man-made disasters. As Pakistan has only one forensic odontologist to cover all four provinces he highlighted the need for more young dentists trained in the field. After studying dentistry, I knew that I wanted to do my masters in the UK and that I wanted to do something different,” Suman explained.
Falak was similarly inspired to ‘fill this gap’ in dentistry by pursuing a postgraduate degree in the UK, and they both settled on Dundee.
“When I was planning the move to Dundee, I thought it would be too tough, but it was totally the opposite. Dundee and its people were very friendly, and I had support from flatmates, my family, fiancé, Pakistani families, the University staff as well as having Suman who was by my side throughout.”
Dundee’s colder and damper climate and the relative quiet, was a new experience for Suman but they adapted to their environment.
“With the low cost of living in Dundee, we were able to explore Scotland, the UK and Europe. But after five days of travelling, we wanted to go home and home was Dundee.”
From Pakistan to Dundee and back again, Falak and Suman have been by each other’s side. Together, they are training a new generation of forensic odontologists to meet the needs of their country by shaping the curriculum as lecturers at Dow University of Health Sciences and they also plan to guide police and medicolegal officials in civil and criminal cases related to dentistry to increase the chance of justice for grieving families.
Training more forensic odontologists and public servants in forensic dentistry is also the critical next step in their plan to establish a disaster victim identification (DVI) unit, something Suman is very passionate about.
“No DVI team means no plan and time wasted for us and for victims’ families. We want a staff team from different fields including forensic odontology that are focused on victim identification. It is difficult and painful but someone needs to do it as a service for our people. We chose to be trained for this and we are proud to have specialised in this field of dentistry.”
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