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Nearly two years into the pandemic, El Paso's county coroner is tired

El Paso County coroner's office
Posted at 5:46 PM, Dec 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-05 23:22:03-05

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — All around Dr. Leon Kelly’s office, there is movie memorabilia. On one shelf, there are "Dexter" action figures; on another, there’s a "Doctor Strange" figurine or a "Star Wars" helmet.

On the wall adjacent to his desk, there’s a painting of Ellen Ripley from "Alien," a keepsake he says reminds him of the fact that there’s always a way out, no matter how dire the circumstances.

A lot of the memorabilia is from horror movies; a signed Freddy Kruger glove is likely the object Kelly brags about most in his office. The self-professed movie lover says it’s nice to have levity around an office that is so serious.

Kelly is El Paso County’s coroner. Every day, he deals with death. His daily job is to try to bring closure to a family or a criminal case.

“It’s an incredibly difficult job. It’s emotionally and physically demanding,” he said.

Kelly has been the county’s coroner since 2018.

Like many of professions, the pandemic has taken its toll on coroners as well. Kelly’s team is set to break a morbid record this year: the most autopsies they’ve ever performed.

“We are, this year, going to be over 1,400 autopsies for the year, which is about 100 more than we’ve ever had before,” Kelly said.

Along with COVID deaths, car accidents, homicides and fentanyl overdose deaths are also on the rise.

For Kelly, the pandemic is a reminder of the need for qualified coroners. While about half the country has moved to a medical examiner system dependent on qualifications, Colorado still elects its coroners for the most part.

The state also hasn’t changed its qualifications for who can run for coroner.

Colorado laws allow anyone who is 18, able to vote and who has not committed a felony to be able to run for the position.

No medical experience is necessary, though there is some mandatory training afterward.

Coroners also put their political affiliations on the ballot, which can help determine who someone votes for. Kelly doesn’t particularly like that part of the job.

“I’ve never done a Republican autopsy. I’ve never seen a Democrat autopsy. While it is a political position with significant power and great responsibility, it’s not a partisan job,” he said.

In an ideal world, he would like to see more medical examiners and fewer elected coroners. But this is not an ideal world.

Along with the physical and emotional rigors of the job, along with the burnout and the increased work during a global pandemic, there’s also a shortage of forensic pathologists.

According to the Scientific Working Group for Medicolegal Death Investigation, there are only about 500 full-time forensic pathologists in the United States.

The same group found that only 30-40 more are added to the profession each year nationwide.

“There are more NFL players on the Denver Broncos' active roster than there are people graduating that can go into this field,” Kelly said.

Another 2020 study by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. found less than 1% of medical students choose to pursue a pathology career.

The staffing shortage is part of the reason coroners are still around; there simply are not enough people to fill all the positions.

Because special certifications are required to perform autopsies, coroners who are not qualified have to outsource the work to a different department, which can pose its own set of challenges. For one thing, the prices of autopsies can depend on demand.

“Essentially this is a free-market system and what happens is prices of those autopsies will go up depending on who is available to do them,” Kelly said.

Kelly has been lucky. He has six forensic pathologists working within his office, one of the largest in the state. As a result, his team performs autopsies for about 20 other counties, covering one-third of the state. It’s a lot of work.

“Our resources are stretched, our staff is stretched. We have staffing shortages just like every other business in the country, but people don’t stop dying because you’re short staffed,” he said.

As lighthearted as he is, it’s clear Kelly is tired. During Denver7’s interview with him, the doctor got emotional talking about the toll this year has taken. Almost every day, there’s another autopsy to perform.

At one point during the pandemic, his team performed 17 autopsies in a single day.

“The job of a forensic pathologist is difficult under the best of circumstances. We see the worst of the worst every day, it’s only tragedy. There are no good endings here,” Kelly said.

Still, he is determined to keep going. Kelly wants to see more doctors choose this profession to help lighten the load on others.

He understands the challenges ahead. A forensic pathologist position requires more training than other medical positions while paying roughly half as much.

Still, there are some tangible steps that could be taken to help, like governments taking a closer look at how much they pay their pathologists or schools encouraging more people to consider the career path.

He’d also like to see the state legislature change some of the laws around who can be qualified to run for coroner to better set a minimum standard at least in big counties.

Forensic pathology is not the most glamorous job in the world, but Kelly knows how important it is during a pandemic, and he hopes the state can take steps to help.

“You don’t care about the coroner until you do — until it’s something that happens to you, or someone in your family, or someone in your community. And then suddenly that becomes a very, very important job,” Kelly said.