2005 a deadly year in Aspen
If anyone in Pitkin County has earned a vacation, it’s the county coroner, Dr. Steve Ayers.The county’s death rate in 2005 so far is more than double the average and has left the coroner’s office grappling with payroll issues and expensive lab work. And the staff is feeling the emotional effects of so many cases in such a short time.On average, about 30 people die annually in Pitkin County, Ayers said. But due to a variety of causes, the number of deaths spiked right after the new year.”We normally average around 30 cases per year, and as of [a couple of weeks ago], we’re up to 15, which is half a year’s load in the first two months,” he said in an interview in early March.As of March 31 the total number of deaths this year had risen to 17.Thirty deaths a year is an average of 2.5 per month, yet there were three in one week recently.Ayers has been either a deputy coroner or chief coroner since 1986. He said that other than the plane crash near the Aspen airport that killed 18 people in 2001, his staff has been “the busiest we’ve ever been.”The fact that the cases have been mostly unrelated and steadily spaced through the past two months has increased the pressure on Ayers and his staff.”They’re all different sorts of deaths,” he said. “Some have been unexplained deaths that turned out to be natural, one was the [meningitis case in Snowmass Village], which around here is somewhat of a rare infection, several car wreck deaths, some falls, the suicides.”Other than the murder-suicide [in Snowmass Village], they’re all basically unrelated. So it is unusual. I can’t see a pattern to it at all so it’s just kind of hard to figure.”Dr. Harold Whitcomb was a doctor in Aspen for 40 years. Now retired, he said the death rate follows cyclical patterns similar to most everything else in life.”There isn’t anything that doesn’t go through an up-and-down [pattern] just like the stock market,” said Whitcomb, one of the town’s first practitioners of holistic medicine. “It’s really tough [to explain] unless you’re into metaphysical phenomenon. All you have to do is watch what goes on in the stock market and the weather and you get a picture of what’s happening with life and death.”You can see patterns of weather and all these other phenomenon just like you can with life and death.”Whitcomb also said the valley’s population is growing older, which is a factor in the recent death rate spike.”We didn’t have an older population to speak of for awhile,” he said. “That’s some of it, there’s no question about it. But the suicides and stuff like that run in patterns just like the market does and the weather does.”While it may be part of a larger, natural trend, the increased death rate is forcing the coroner’s office to spread the work around. One advantage the office has is the ability to disseminate the cases among Ayers and his assistants.”I have five deputy coroners, three of whom are very active. We have the capacity to handle this on a regular basis, but it is tiring because we all have other careers,” said Ayers, who is also an emergency room doctor at Aspen Valley Hospital.He said the surge in the death rate could affect his department’s bottom line.”If this were to keep up, eventually we would have to make some adjustments. It’s going to tax our budget obviously,” Ayers said. “We’ve never really had any trouble with our budget. The county commissioners have always come through for our office, and we’ve never needed anything that we didn’t get. If this kept up, it would deplete our budget by the end of the year. Usually we’re right on target or don’t even use all the money.”The two biggest expenses are payroll – “because we basically pay ourselves an hourly rate,” Ayers said – and autopsies. “Autopsies are expensive. By the time you do toxicology and everything, you’re talking around $1,000 per case, maybe a little more,” he said. “Normally we’re doing 15 or 20 a year. Not all cases require an autopsy, but a lot of the cases we’ve had this year have required an autopsy for one reason or another.”Asked if the increased death rate has taken an emotional toll on his staff, Ayers said, “It has in the sense that if you do too many cases in a row and you’re getting fatigued and not sleeping, which happens to all of us, yeah, it starts to impact you.”I would say personally it’s impacted me more because I did Hunter’s case and I had known the guy for 17 years,” he said, referring to the suicide of author Hunter S. Thompson. “That was hard to do, but on the other hand, just out of respect to him, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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