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Caring For Coroners

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(AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

In this Oct. 2, 2017 file photo, investigators load bodies from the scene of a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on the Las Vegas Strip on in Las Vegas. A coroner in Las Vegas says all 58 victims in the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip died of gunshot wounds. Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg told The Associated Press on Thursday, Dec. 21, that all the cases were ruled homicides.

Mass shootings like the one that happened on October 1, 2017, can have intense emotional consequences for first responders.

Investigators working for the Clark County Coroner’s Office stepped in to identify victims and notify next-of-kin. They worked for days without stopping in the wake of the shooting, a duty that took its toll.

But Coroner John Fudenberg and his staff adopted a creative response to dealing with the trauma his investigators were exposed to.

Ann Givens is a staff reporter for The Trace, an online newsroom focused on gun violence. Her latest report focuses on the steps the Coroner’s Office took to help the staff cope and what coroners around the country might do to help staff heal if they’re called on to respond to a similar tragedy.

“This is a story I went into with some apprehension because I had heard that that office was hit very hard emotionally by the shooting and its aftermath," Givens told KNPR's State of Nevada, "But what I found there really surprised me, which was a group of people who had indeed come through something difficult but had really come through it stronger as a really cohesive and sort of caring group of people”

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Givens said the workers at the coroner's office inspired her.

She had gone into the story with the same stereotypical ideas about medical examiners that are often portrayed in movies and TV shows that they're frumpy old men who are trying to avoid the living.

The reality she found was that most of the people working there are women and that most feel "called" to the profession. Givens explained that most coroner office workers feel they have a special ability to help the people who have lost a loved one through that area between life and death.

In the aftermath of the October 1 shooting, the mission became especially difficult. Usually, workers deal with talking to one or two people about the death of a loved one but on October 2, 2017 - it was different.

“In this case, they were notifying sometimes six families or more in a shift and I think just the magnitude of the tragedy and the overwhelm of it really left them bereft," Givens said.

Fudenberg decided dealing with the tragedy couldn't be business as usual.

“He really pushed and fought for wellness and mental health services for his staff," she said, "That included everything from yoga and meditation three times a day for a full year after the tragedy to group counseling sessions. They brought in golden retrievers for the staff to bond with. They did barbeques. They did chair massages.”

Givens found that everyone responded to a different mental wellness approach. Some found the yoga and meditation to be helpful. Others found comfort in letters from other coroners' offices that had gone through similar tragedies.

There were people who left the office in the aftermath but of those who stayed, Givens found a feeling of resilience and closeness. While these mass shootings seem to strip our society of its humanity, Givens found that at the Clark County Coroner's Office the tragedy also brought a chance to "restore human connection and community."

“I was amazed that when I was speaking to people who work there, one thing that several of them said to me was, ‘I was glad that I was here for this,’ which seemed like such an amazing thing and very surprising thing to say and I think that in the end, they feel that they are happy that they were able to provide the service that they were for the community.”

Now, Fudenberg has secured a permanent source of funding for mental health care for coroners' officers and first responders. A portion of the fees paid for death certificates now pays for those services.

Guests

Ann Givens, staff reporter, The Trace

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