Aside from investigating death, the Summit County Coroner’s Office helps survivors during the worst moments of their lives
Summit County, a land of unparalleled rugged beauty, is also often a land of tragic contradictions. A playground for thrill-seekers and adventurers living life to the fullest comes with its fair share of death and heartache. While most may avoid the very idea of mortality, the Summit County Coroner’s Office is charged with investigating every single death in the county. Even in a small mountain community, it’s not a job for the faint of heart, or for those with a dearth of compassion.
Coroner Regan Wood has worked at the coroner’s office for 14 years. During that time, she and her small but dedicated staff have seen most of the worst the mountains have to offer; from peaceful, natural deaths of the elderly and infirm, to ski and hiking accidents, to grisly traffic accidents involving families and children. Sometimes, the cases hit close to home.
“It always hits a little harder when it’s someone close to us,” Wood said. “It’s a small community, and many of us have been here a long time, so it doesn’t take long before realizing the seven degrees of separation.”
Wood said that due to the experience and training she and her staff have as investigators/caregivers, the familiarity can sometimes be a boon for a family while they go through what is often the most traumatic moments of their lives.
“Numerous times on the scene, survivors have asked for me and I might not be available,” Wood said. “It’s so nice for them to see a familiar face amidst all this turmoil, just to see a familiar face. They know that we can be a resource, and that we know how to handle that situation, that we’ve been there before with other people, and its comforting to them to have somebody they know help them through that situation.”
Arlene Seltzer, a survivor support staff member charged with comforting survivors after a traumatic event, said that most of the time, the help survivors need most are the things people not in crisis might take for granted
“Sometimes it’s something as simple as just finding a place for a family to stay overnight,” Seltzer said. “We’ve had families who couldn’t go back home, but didn’t even think of where to go back.”
While that often has to do with folks visiting from out of town, a local family may understandably not want to stay in the house or area a loved one passed away in, but still need a place to stay in the county in order to accompany the loved one’s body on its journey to its final destination.
After a tragedy, the survivor staff get to work doing those seemingly trivial things that survivors are too traumatized to even think about — things like the ability to get a hotel room, cancelling or creating flight reservations, retrieving clothes and belongings from their home, even making sure they’re eating and drinking.
“In that state, they’re not thinking about eating,” Seltzer said. “So we remind them to drink some water, have a bite to eat. We tell them it’s going to be a long day or night, and that they’re going to have a lot of decisions to make soon, so they need to keep up their strength. Little reminders like that.”
But as with any job dealing with tragedy, the pain seeps into those who perform it. Wood said that while she and her staff have an abundance of experience and training to handle these situations, they are not immune from the trauma.
“The stuff haunts you, it haunts all of us,” Wood said. “Just like the families and people we deal with, we need to find ways to cope and self-heal.”
On a recent debriefing and training session, Chief deputy coroner Wendy Kipple had her fellow staff members over to her ranch, where she has horses available for a special kind of therapy.
“I am a certified Equine-Guided Education Facilitator,” Kipple said. “It’s not necessarily education as in the literal sense, but it’s education about yourself and the leadership ability within you, and about self-care. The horses help facilitate that.”
Kipple explained that horses are very sensitive animals that can sense through a person’s body language how they are really feeling, despite what they say or how they act to the world. Kipple, in turn, interprets what the horse seems to be sensing from a person and interprets it to them.
“The horse can call BS on us when we’re saying something but feeling something else,” Kipple said. “As a facilitator, I know my horses so I can say what it is the horse is telling me about the person. Horses don’t judge, and it really helps people release all that emotional baggage if they are able to express that to them. In this office, that’s how I’ve always kept my sanity. I’ve had my animals to go back to.”
Wood said she hopes the public doesn’t take what her office does for granted, as they are people too and have to deal with the same traumatic scenes and emotions that pour out during and after a tragedy.
“People think that coroners know what they’re getting into, that we deal with bodies and death every day,” Wood said. “But they don’t think it can traumatize us as well. My staff and myself, we do suffer a lot. It’s hard. We might be the ‘last responders,’ but we experience everything first responders do, and then some.”
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