The coroner opens up 

Local View

'No one minds if I don't show up for work," says Robert Bux, "but if Bailey isn't here they complain."

Bailey has been coming to work with Bux, his owner and the El Paso County coroner, virtually every day for more than seven years. The shaggy, black-and-white "accidental designer blend" moves about the office, ball in mouth, coercing play out of employees and visitors, who could be grieving family members. Bailey also has regular funeral home employees trained to deliver treats.

"He's good for staff," says Bux, 66. "He picks up on people if they're not acting right."

In the recent mid-term election, we learned plenty about some candidates for local offices. Bux, meanwhile, attracted little attention in being re-elected to an uncontested third full term. Only when there's a high-profile death do we find the coroner in the news; and even then, we don't know much about the coroner himself.

Bux, however, recently gave me a tour of his relatively new digs at the Citizens Service Center on Garden of the Gods Road. So here's what I can impart about the man and his office.

The coroner's office investigates deaths that occur outside the confines of a hospital. State law mandates that the office be notified of any violent or sudden, unexpected death, and that its investigators must determine the cause. The decision of whether to autopsy a body, Bux says, is dictated by state statute. In 2011, his office investigated 3,491 deaths, 936 of which required autopsies. Homicides accounted for just 4 percent of those.

Autopsies take place in the morgue, which looks like an operating room from a TV hospital drama — until you look to one end of the room, where a big door opens to a loading bay and two large refrigerators. This day, 10 bodies awaited release to funeral homes.

Perhaps the best benefit of the new space is that there's actually a separate morgue, with its own ventilation system, for bodies in later states of decomposition. Previously, the coroner says, when they had a decomposing body at their East Las Vegas Street facility, the smell would pour into the offices. Once the body was removed, it would take about three days before that lifted.

Bux also talks up all the windows and natural light for his 24 employees, and mentions that he made sure the walls here would be painted lighter colors. You could almost forget you're in the presence of death, if it weren't for signs such as "Bone Storage" and "Tissue Storage" outside the rooms.

Common household items dot the office. Since they do their own laundry (gowns and such), they have a Maytag washer and detergent on site. (It's Dynamo brand, which I see as a strong endorsement.) And plenty of bleach — the morgue gets cleaned with a bleach solution every day.

On the counter, I notice two boxes of Glad trash bags. "What are those for?" I ask. Bux explains that during an autopsy, each organ is removed and weighed. When workers complete the autopsy, they bag up the organs and place them back into the body, making it easier for funeral homes to do their final preparations.

"Like the giblets in a Thanksgiving turkey?" I ask.

"Not quite," he replies, rather diplomatically.

Which brings us back to Bux himself. He originally studied general medicine but later specialized in pathology. During his time in the military, he was stationed at Fort Carson Army Hospital (now Evans). After his military service, he settled in Texas, then came here.

He's served as coroner since being appointed to that position in 2006 — he came recommended by his predecessor, who was retiring — and he talks like someone used to working in small government. Explaining that his employees have to open rib cages when performing autopsies, he notes, "There's a medical instrument that costs hundreds of dollars, or I can get shears from Lowe's or Home Depot, which are just as good and last longer."

When he's away from the office, Bux says, he doesn't talk about work. His friends (who are not in the medical field) and his wife give him space, he says. But the job does have its upsides. "For me," he says, "the most gratifying thing is finding out how somebody died to give closure to the family."

And you have to appreciate a workplace that allows dogs — even if Bailey is limited to the carpeted areas of the office.


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