After COVID-19 wreaked havoc on government budgets everywhere, Clark County offered its employees voluntary retirement agreements.
Among the roughly 420 county employees who took one is John Fudenberg, who served as coroner for five years.
Fudenberg has seen it all — and then some. He was on site after the Route 91 shooting on October 1, 2017, documenting bodies after the first responders left.
He winds down a nearly 30-year career with the county today, his last day.
“Part of me is excited. Part of me is sad. I shed some tears when I talked to a lot of my co-workers and close friends,” Fudenberg told KNPR's State of Nevada.
Fudenberg started in local government on the law enforcement side. He worked for the city of Las Vegas city marshals' office and then moved to the county coroner's office under Mike Murphy. He took over Murphy's job in 2015.
He said his work in the coroner's office is one of the reasons he took early retirement. “Seeing how is life is so short and ends so suddenly - so frequently, you know wanting to retire early… that definitely played a factor."
The coroner's office is much different than most people imagine, Fudenberg said.
“People watch 'CSI' and the other 'Forensic Files' types of shows and they think that we have a lot of people in high heels and fancy clothes walking around when, in fact, we get dirty. It’s not an easy job,” he said.
He said most people think of homicide investigations when they think of his office, but in reality, it deals with so much more, such as natural deaths, heat-related deaths and drug overdoses. Besides investigating the cause of a person's death, the staff must talk with the family and friends of a person who has died.
“The majority of our staff will tell you that we’re more in the life business because we deal with the survivors and that’s who we serve, and we make it a priority to serve the families of people who lost a loved one, and that’s where we get a lot of benefit,” he said.
Fudenberg said helping the people who have lost loved ones is the rewarding part of the job, and without compassion, a coroner's office can not do its job.
“If you don’t put your heart and soul into this job - and I don’t just mean me, I mean our entire staff - it will eat you alive. You’ve got to be able to show your emotions and deal with your emotions and be compassionate,” he said.
Fudenberg added that it is really his staff that does all the difficult work and he's just privileged to manage the team.
The coroner's office has been put in a very difficult position lately as the coronavirus outbreak has taken the lives of so many people in Southern Nevada.
“It has really stressed our office,” he said.
The office does not perform an autopsy on every COVID-19 death, but they do respond to hospitals and homes where someone has passed. He said going into those situations puts his staff at risk for the disease, which is stressful.
Out of an abundance of caution, the staff uses extra protective gear when responding to a suspected or known case of COVID-19.
Besides the personal risks, the budget cutbacks at the county brought on by the pandemic mean it is unlikely the office will get extra money, staffing or the new building it is has needed for a long time.
The coronavirus outbreak is not the first time Fudenberg has had to lead his staff through difficult times. He was in charge after the October 1 shooting on the Strip, an event he said impacted him more than anything else in his career.
“Looking back now, here we are nearly three years - I can’t believe it's [been] three years - but I think what it's done for me, now that I’m kind of reflecting, is just made me appreciate life more,” he said.
Fudenberg said dealing with the deaths from the mass shooting made him get a better understanding of what is most important in life and where his priorities should be.
He admits he would have loved to retire during that difficult time but, “abandoning ship at that point is just not an option.”
After living through that experience, Fudenberg said he found a new appreciation for the city of Las Vegas and the people who call it home.
“It really demonstrated the sense of community that Las Vegas is capable of. A lot of people called Las Vegas home even though they’re transplants after [the shooting]. It brought us closer. It showed the good in a lot of people,” he said.
Fudenberg believes the whole city adopted a Vegas Strong attitude after the shooting and overall turned a horrific tragedy into a positive for the community.
As he leaves his office, Fudenberg has some advice for the county about how to improve the coroner's office.
“This job is getting a lot more complex and has gotten a lot more complex over the past decade,” he said.
Fudenberg admits that now is not the time to ask for more resources, but he said the coroner's office does need it. He said 20 years ago the write-up of an investigation would be only about a paragraph long, but that is not the case anymore.
He added that funding has decreased for his office just as the needs of the community have increased. There are four full-time doctors in the coroner's office, but there is a caseload for nine to 10 full-time doctors.
Fudenberg understands that his office is competing with family services, child welfare and public safety for county dollars.
“It is not always easy to prioritize the death business, and often times, we’re picking up the crumbs,” he said.
Plus, he notes it will take a long time for local governments to bounce back from the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
As for the next coroner, Fudenberg's advice is to keep fighting for those resources.
Plus, he wants whoever takes over to keep the mental health and wellness of the staff always in mind. Fudenberg said people didn't like to talk about the impacts of the job on mental health, but that is changing.
In the last legislative session, lawmakers provided funding for mental health services for first responders and the coroner's office is considered the last first responder.
“I hope that they take that money and really develop some programs for our staff,” he said.
It is that staff that he will miss the most, Fudenberg said.
“We’ve kind of been through the battlefield together, those of us who worked the 1 October incident together," he said, "That’s created a bond that you can’t really describe.”
Looking ahead, Fudenberg is taking his daughter to her first year of college this fall. He bought a trailer and he plans to take a two-month road trip. He expects he'll find work again somewhere, but he's not going to make that decision for a least a month.
"[I'll] just see where life takes me after that.”
John Fudenberg, coroner, Clark County
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.