How Coroners Face The Trauma Of Mass Shootings

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A makeshift memorial for victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)
A makeshift memorial for victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

It’s been two years since the mass shooting at the Route 91 music festival in Las Vegas, and survivors are still dealing with trauma from the attack that killed 58 people.

The shooting also took a toll on a particular group of first responders — coroners. Las Vegas’ death investigators witnessed the mass violence and had to grapple with what they saw.

“Our staff is responding to two or three tragic unexpected deaths every single shift,” says John Fudenberg, head coroner for Clark County.

“You can imagine how stressful it would be to knock on the door of a mother whose 16-year-old daughter got killed in a motor vehicle accident at 2:00 a.m. and you're the one notifying her of that,” he says. “That's a stressful job, not to mention picking the human remains up off the highway after an accident. And I know that sounds very graphic, but I think that's the reality and that's something that our staff deal with every day.”

Despite their experience with horrific deaths, the Route 91 shooting was different for coroners due to the scale of the tragedy.

“I don't want to tell you that we were prepared because I don't think any coroner medical examiner's office can be prepared for something like this,” Fudenberg says, “but we at least had a foundation of training and had an idea of what we would do, so that helped a lot.”

In fact, prior to the shooting, Fudenberg’s office developed a survey to help determine what kind of support coroners need after facing such tragedy day after day.

“The survey was designed just to ask the staff what types of calls that they find difficult and what types of services would match those types of calls,” Fudenberg says. “So we found what we thought we would find and that was that they didn't want it to be mandatory, and we found what a lot of agencies have found that the peer-to-peer support is really the most beneficial type of support.”

The Clark County coroner’s office employed what it learned from the survey in the wake of the mass shooting. It brought counselors and golden retrievers to the office as well as other comforting measures, such as yoga and meditation, and chair massage breaks.

Many coroners were reluctant at first to accept help because they see tragedy every day, Fudenberg says. But the majority of his staff responded well.

“One of the challenges is these people are so used to what they're dealing with that oftentimes, it's hard to even get them to participate,” he says. “So what we were trying to do is just throw all sorts of services at them, and hopefully they would take advantage of something.”

Funding for mental health services can be costly, but Fudenberg says the Clark County coroner’s office was fortunate enough to receive a federal grant right after the shooting. A bill also recently passed in the state legislature that will provide at least $100,000 a year to develop a mental health program for coroners, he says.

“It's just not something that that our local governments can fund,” he says. “So it's always a battle to get the funding to help with things like that.”

The University of Nevada at Las Vegas is also conducting a study of wellness programs at the coroner’s office, which Fudenberg says they hope to publish in order to implement a set of recommendations in coroner’s offices nationwide.

It all comes down to making mental health a priority in coroner’s offices, where it is often ignored in favor of a more grin-and-bear-it approach, Fudenberg says.

“There are so many people in our field that think that if you ignore the wellness and the mental health of your staff, you can get through it,” he says. “And if you pay a lot of attention to it, you almost create victims. And I think that's just ridiculous.

“So we've got to pay attention to it and understand that unless you do something, they're going to suffer,” he adds. “And they'll probably still suffer, but at least you can minimize that a bit.”

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on October 16, 2019.

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Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.


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Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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