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Coroners carrying heavier emotional burden than ever before because of COVID-19

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Posted at 10:09 AM, Oct 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-01 10:09:17-04

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. — In the world of first responders, Amber Flenniken comes last. She joined the coroner’s office as the Deputy Coroner in Summit County after years of working in a hospital.

“I'm so fascinated with anatomy,” said Flenniken. “I'm not scared of the gore, and the blood, and the exposed bones and things like that.”

Yet, with all the biology she knows, she’s had to learn the science of sympathy.

“A big part of what we do is emotional support for families,” explained Flenniken.

COVID-19 put distance between Flenniken and her community when closeness was needed more than ever.

Watching families lose people to COVID was painful, but it was how COVID changed her job that left her struggling.

She remembers the death of a backcountry skier.

“An avalanche was triggered while they were back there, and one of their buddies was caught in it. It was palpable how every single one of us wanted to embrace them because this is the worst day of their life. I could still see one of them as he looks at me and drops to his knees, and I'm standing there wanting to squeeze him, and, you know, we can't,” said Flenniken.

She could no longer comfort a family with a hug and found herself delivering horrible news from her office phone.

“I had to call mom, and when she called me back, she knew something was wrong. I had to tell her. It was awful,” Flenniken said. “It was up there with one of the worst days of my life.”

Coroner Regan Wood and her all-female team have supported each other through it all.

Wood said this virus hurt her hometown, even for those who never got physically sick.

For her, one of the most painful moments in this past year was when she was called to respond to multiple teens dying by suicide within days of each other.

“It was tough. It's tough, I get upset [even] now,” said Wood, wiping tears from her eyes. “Personally, I have PTSD from years of doing this work. I get emotional. I mean, I've lived here 29 years. I know a lot of these people personally, peripherally.”

“We're a small community, so we're all really close,” said Flenniken. “When I take care of someone that has passed away, that person becomes my family, their family becomes my family.”

Helping family day after day is something they can only do with support.

“You've got to let yourself be able to grieve. You can't just be stoic in this job and say, ‘You can take out anything; nothing's going to get to me’ because it will,” said Wood.

So, in this time of immeasurable grief, Wood reached out for help for her entire team.

Building Hope stepped in. The nonprofit offers free mental health care services for those in need in the community. Anyone can apply for one of these scholarships.

Building Hope therapist Kellyn Ender found that the more she and her team made mental health care easier to access, the more people got involved. Many of those who accessed their services were frontline workers.

“People now are really feeling that exhaustion, that burnout, and where before they just have carried through because there's no other choice,” said Ender. “They’re helpers at heart. They just keep going, and I think that's a huge piece of the frontline workers is that they're there to help. They're there to serve and they just keep going forward. So, it's taken a huge, significant toll on them.”

Ender and her team started group therapy sessions and training for the coroner’s office and other groups of frontline workers, so the individuals in these stressful jobs had a place to find support. From restaurant workers to law enforcement, this team worked to reach every facet of their mountain community.

“Certainly, the front line jobs, we've definitely seen an increase of people contacting us for support,” said the Building Hope mental health coordinator Ravi Jaishankar. “COVID really blew the lid open for people's mental health and their awareness of their mental health needs. I think that people now realize, you know, how important mental health is as the forefront of their overall health. We're still seeing a highly increased need, even a year after lockdown. It's still there.”

“People were suffering here on all levels, whether it was frontline workers, or people in our food and beverage and hospitality business, or the folks that had lost their jobs,” said Jennifer McAtamney, the executive director of Building Hope. “And so, we really came together as a community and did everything we could to hold people up during really hard times.

Building Hope even started a men’s support group, which has taken off in recent months.

“They were able to just sit down for an hour a week, talk about it, decompress, debrief,” said Ender of the training and group sessions.

For the women of the coroner’s office, setting aside time to process and grieve helped immensely.

“It was like, ‘It's OK, you see some horrible things. Of course, you're going to feel horrible. You're going to cry at some point, so that's normal,’” said Wood.

She went on to explain this focus on mental health has been a culture shift she’s been dedicated to making for herself and for her team.

“This office did not always offer that through the years when I was in training. I'm glad it's not like that anymore.”

As these women carry on through a seemingly endless struggle, they’re now taking more time to get outdoors and more time to balance what brings them joy.

“We'll do some equine therapy with the horses, which is awesome,” said Wood of an office-wide outing that helped her team recharge.

With the healing these women are doing for themselves, it’s now giving them the chance to help others heal, too.

“These are humans to us, these are not just cases. These are not just bodies,” said Wood.

“It is extremely emotional. I think what really why it's so rewarding to me is that I know I'm helping someone at the worst day of their life,” said Flenniken.

If you’d like to access the services that Building Hope provides, click HERE.