SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado – In the world of first responders, Amber Flenniken comes last. She joined the coroner’s office as an assistant coroner in Summit County after years of working in a hospital.
âI am so fascinated by the anatomy,â said Flenniken. “I’m not afraid of blood, and blood, and exposed bones and things like that.”
Yet, with all the biology she knows, she had to learn the science of sympathy.
âA big part of what we do is emotional support for families,â Flenniken explained.
COVID-19 put distance between Flenniken and his community when proximity was needed more than ever.
Watching families lose people to COVID was painful, but it was the way COVID changed her job that left her struggling.
She remembers the death of an off-piste skier.
âAn avalanche started when they were back there, and one of their buddies got caught in it. It was palpable how much each of us wanted to kiss them because it’s the worst day of their lives. I could still see one of them as he looks at me and drops to his knees, and I’m standing there wanting to hug him, and, you know, we can’t, âFlenniken said.
She could no longer comfort a family with a hug and found herself delivering horrible news from her desk phone.
âI had to call mom, and when she called me back she knew something was wrong. I had to tell him. It was horrible, âsaid Flenniken. “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 throughout this time.
Wood said this virus has injured his hometown, even for those who have never been physically ill.
For her, one of the most painful moments of the past year was when she was called upon to respond to several teens who committed suicide within days of each other.
” It was hard. It’s hard, I get angry [even] now, Wood said, wiping the tears from his eyes. âPersonally, I have PTSD after years of working. I get emotional. I mean, I lived here 29 years. I know many of these people personally, peripherally. “
âWe are a small community, so we are all very close,â said Flenniken. “When I take care of a deceased person, that person becomes my family, their family becomes my family.”
Helping the family day in and day out is something they can only do with support.
âYou have to allow yourself to grieve. You can’t just be stoic in this job and say, âYou can take anything back; nothing will get to me because it will, âsaid Wood.
So, in this time of immeasurable grief, Wood asked his entire team for help.
Building Hope intervened. The non-profit organization provides free mental health services to those in need in the community. Anyone can apply for any of these scholarships.
Building Hope therapist Kellyn Ender found that the more she and her team made it easier for her to access mental health care, the more people got involved. Many of those who used their services were frontline workers.
âPeople now really feel this burnout, this burnout, and where before they just continued because there was no other choice,â Ender said. âThey are helpers in the soul. They just keep going, and I think it’s a big part of the frontline workers that they’re there to help. They are there to serve and they keep moving forward. So it took a heavy toll on them. “
Ender and his team have started group therapy sessions and training for the coroner’s office and other frontline worker groups, so those in these stressful jobs have a place to find support. From restaurateurs to law enforcement, this team has endeavored to reach out to all facets of their mountain community.
âCertainly in frontline jobs, we’ve certainly seen an increase in the number of people reaching out to us for help,â said Building Hope mental health coordinator Ravi Jaishankar. âCOVID really blew the lid off people’s mental health and their awareness of their mental health needs. I think people are now realizing, you know, how central to mental health is to their overall health. We still see a greatly increased need, even a year after containment. He is always there.
“People were suffering here at all levels, whether it was frontline workers, people working in our food, beverage and hospitality industry, or people who had lost their jobs.” said Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of Building Hope. âAnd so, we really came together as a community and did all we could to support people during the really tough times.
Building Hope even started a men’s support group, which has taken off in recent months.
âThey could just sit for an hour a week, talk about it, decompress, debrief,â Ender said of the training and group sessions.
For the women in the coroner’s office, setting aside time for processing and grieving has helped immensely.
âIt was like, ‘It’s okay, you see horrible things. Of course, you are going to feel awful. You’re going to cry at some point, so that’s okay, âWood said.
She went on to explain that this focus on mental health has been a culture shift that she has dedicated herself to making for herself and her team.
âThis office didn’t always offer that during the years I was in training. I’m glad it’s not like that anymore.
As these women fight a seemingly endless struggle, they now take more time to come out and more time to balance whatever brings them joy.
âWe’re going to do equine therapy with the horses, which is great,â Wood said of an office-wide outing that helped his team reenergize.
With the healing that these women are doing for themselves, it now gives them the chance to help others heal as well.
âThey are humans for us, they are not just cases. It’s not just bodies, âsaid Wood.
âIt’s extremely moving. I think the real reason it’s so rewarding for me is that I know I’m helping someone through the worst day of their life, âsaid Flenniken.
If you would like to access the services provided by Building Hope, click HERE.