Ouray County Coroner. Compassion and Curiosity, March 15, 2016
by Kathryn R. Burke
Now on her second term as elected coroner, Hollenbeck has been OC Coroner since 2011. Before that, she served as deputy coroner under Gary Miller, who suggested she run when he retired from the position.
“I hadn’t really thought of it before,” she said. “But Gary said to me: ‘It’s killin’ me.’ We had 14 deaths that year. He made me one of two deputy coroners and later asked me if I would run for the office.”
During most of her tenure, Hollenbeck, a registered nurse with a Masters Degree in Community Health and Administration, did double duty as nurse with hospice out of their Montrose facility. “I was their first nurse here,” she said, “and the Clinical Coordinator. “ Since then the organization, now called Hope West, has expanded to a staff of 300 caring for more than 2,500 patients in a five-county area, including Ouray.
Her nursing and administrative background make her a particularly effective coroner. The job requires compassion in dealing with the families of the deceased and a good dose of curiosity to undertake investigations, where appropriate or necessary, into the manner of death. Hollenbeck certainly possesses both qualities. She also completed the course, within a couple months of her election, to obtain death investigator certification through an accredited program.
What exactly does she do? Hollenbeck explained several key components of her job.
• By statute, the coroner must determine cause and manner of all deaths that occur in Ouray County.
• Another part of the job is to work with other agencies and entities, such as Emergency Medical services, Public Health, and the Sheriff’s Department to evaluate what we can do for preventable deaths. Ouray County is dangerous. We have mountains and cliffs and unmarked areas where people can explore. So we partner with other agencies to caution people who come to visit here about things like altitude sickness, the need for hydration, and care in participating in physical activities that could be detrimental to their health.
• It is the Coroner’s job to notify next of kin when a death occurs. Sometimes, when it involves an automobile accident, we to it through proxy with local law enforcement, or with the Colorado State Patrol Victim Advocate.
• Another function of this position is to decrease risk to Ouray County. Attending to the needs of grieving family and loved ones can be time consuming but reflects who we are as a county.
• The Coroner may pronounce death.
Hollenbeck has participated in several particularly newsworthy cases in Ouray County. In one, a local resident, who insisted on feeding the bears, wound up having the bears feed on her. “I was present at the autopsy,” she said. “We don’t have to be, but it sure helps to put the details together with the pathologist autopsy.”
In the aftermath of a recent tragic plane crash, in which the pilot, a passenger, and two children perished, at the request of the family, Hollenbeck personally participated in the extraction of the victim. “The family wanted a woman, a compassionate retrieval, and, with the help of Ruth Stewart, Colette Miller (both EMS) and Kirsten Copeland, State Park Director, we were able to do that for them.”
Following the recent mine accident where men were killed, when the family wanted to be there when the victims were brought out, “I said yes,” Hollenbeck said. “We all strive for th spiritual connection, but sometimes we have to let family view the person who died, for some kind of proof it is really true. They are in shock, I want to help them as much as I can to understand what happened to their loved one.
So yes, compassion—when dealing with the dying and the newly bereaved, and helping them find closure, especially when an investigation (characterized by a healthy sense of curiosity) is called for—are certainly descriptive of Colleen Hollenbeck, Ouray County Corner. I would also add Courage, for to juggle all the aspects of a job in a unique county like this one, takes a particular kind of courage.
During her presentation to the Womans’ Club, Tuesday, March 15 at 1 p.m., Hollenbeck will talk about her experiences on the job and answer questions about how the office works.
Monthly meetings are held at 1-3 p.m. at the Ouray Community Center, San Juan Room. Now in it’s sixth year, and created by Club VP Barb Morss, most meetings feature a unique program presenting guest speakers who are . . . “uncommon women” and who lead . . . “uncommon lives.” Following a break for refreshments, a short business meeting is held. The public is welcome.