Summit County coroner Regan Wood loves her job, and the personal connections that come with it
“I love death. I find it fascinating — all aspects.”
Regan Wood says this with a smile, leaning back in her chair. Wood has been a deputy coroner for six years, and will be sworn in as the Summit County coroner on Jan. 14, 2015.
Her short blond hair, bright purple sweater and friendly, open expression belie the popular image pushed by Hollywood of a grim, sallow-faced person who prefers the silence of the dead to the company of the living.
The same goes for her office, on the second floor of the building next door to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. The yellow walls are hung with photographs of wildlife, and two large windows offer a stunning view of mountain peaks. A few extra touches include a plastic skeleton propped up on top of a file cabinet, and a sugar skull drawing brought back from a recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Wood is always happy to talk about her job, though she knows some people prefer to steer around subjects like death and dead bodies. When she talks, her passion for her work shines through, whether she’s discussing the varied aspects of her responsibilities, what she learned on her latest stint with the Denver coroner or her plans for yet another certificate or accreditation.
LANDING IN SUMMIT
Wood didn’t always intend to work in the coroner business. She holds a history degree from San Diego State University, and a paralegal certification from the University of San Diego. Calling her from the beach were the snowy slopes of Tahoe, where she’d often pick up a job during the winter break. An avid skier, she had friends who lived around the country, including Colorado. A trip to visit them convinced her that Summit County was the place to be, and she moved here in 1992.
As most do when they first arrive in the High Country, Wood started out selling lift tickets at Copper Mountain Resort. She also began volunteering with the Advocates for Victims of Assault (AVA), a local nonprofit.
Though she took on a handful of different jobs, Wood maintained her connection to AVA, eventually working her way up to executive director, a position she held for nine years. In 2005 she decided to step down, and it was at her leaving party that she was approached by Joanne Richardson, the county coroner at the time, with an offer to become a deputy coroner.
TAKING ON THE ROLE
Wood was not unfamiliar with the type of work a coroner does. As an AVA volunteer, she had often gone on-scene, responding to traumatic incidents of assault and death, so she had experience dealing with people in shock, be they victims, family members or friends.
“Usually when there’s a traumatic death, there’s a lot of emotion and shock, and people are confused and need resources,” Wood said. She and other volunteers would be on hand to help with whatever was needed, from calming people down to following up with them later to see how they could help — things that Wood still does today.
When she took on the role of deputy coroner, Wood took a weeklong medicolegal death investigation training course at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Since then, she hasn’t stopped. She’s continually doing internships, riding along on calls with the coroner in Denver, taking certification courses and so on. Last December, she received her American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators certification, and last summer was elected to the Colorado Coroner’s Association Board.
“When it comes down to it, she has a passion for being coroner, for this office,” said Tim Keeling. Keeling has been the county coroner since 2012. “She just wants to be the best coroner in the state, and I think she can be.”
THE NEXT BIG STEP
Earlier this year, Wood announced her bid for coroner. Although she had no opponents to challenge her, she admits she was nervous.
“I was really excited I was running unopposed,” Wood said. “I don’t know if I could have stood the stress. I’m not a real political person; I’m here for the job. I’m qualified, I’m here, I’m on it. It’s still a weird process, though.”
She got through it, and will officially take on the role in January.
“I felt very blessed and fortunate,” she said.
THE HUMAN ASPECT
Death was never something that fazed Wood. She grew up reading Nancy Drew, then moved on to crime novels. She also enjoys watching episodes of investigative shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI.”
“It’s not all fallacy and fantasy; there are some parts of it that are true,” she said of the popular TV shows. “I think a lot of people that do this work like to watch it, just for entertainment value.”
While she enjoys the investigation aspect of her job, her favorite part, she said, is the human interaction.
“(It’s) meeting the people and the families, … taking a minute to try and empathize with what they’re going through and how can I be of help, and what would I need in situation like this,” she said.
Wood has seen the full range of human emotion when it comes to death, and does her best to assess each situation and react accordingly. She also makes a point to follow up with families afterward, offering assistance with paperwork or connection with other services available.
Recently, for example, someone needed a certain document, and Wood offered to drop it by the person’s house.
Wood prides herself on her connection with the community. “I like the fact that I’ve been here for 22 years. I’ve worked in human services for the whole time,” she said. “I try to stay very involved in my community.”
She notices a big difference between working in Summit County (which in 2013 had 76 total recorded deaths) and Denver, where nearly every day the coroner’s office deals with multiple bodies. Wood estimates that she has a personal connection to about every third death she encounters in Summit.
“I’m much more attached and I feel I put myself out there more,” she said. “In the city, you just can’t. The numbers are so big and everyone’s so anonymous.”
Respect for the dead is an important part of Wood’s attitude, even when she’s working with the Denver office and doesn’t know the victim.
“This was somebody’s loved one,” she said. “It’s not an anonymous, not-mattering person. They definitely have stories. I like to get the back stories before I go in,” she said, by reading the case reports.
The human connection also includes her team, her friends and her family outside her job, who lend emotional support when needed. And living in a beautiful area helps too.
“Nature’s my religion,” she said. “If I have an upsetting case, I’ll go for a long walk and have a good cry.”
She likes the Rainbow Lake hiking trail in Frisco, and said she thinks of the families of the dead while she walks, and makes mental notes to check in with them when she returns.
“We’re a team,” Keeling said of the coroner’s office. “We’re in this for the families, and that’s why we do this job.”
Overall, Wood said she loves her job and is looking forward to officially taking on the role in January. “I’ve been working for this for a long time, so I’m very proud, I’m excited, I’m ready.”
She added, “I take pride in being an approachable, empathetic coroner. I care about these people, and I’ve suffered enough loss in my life that I know what it is.”
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