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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Two days before he stepped down as chief medical investigator, Dr. Kurt Nolte wanted to talk about something he had worked toward since taking the helm of the state Office of the Medical Investigator in 2015.
In this place where death is poked, prodded, examined and categorized, he was focused on that which his pathologist’s scalpel cannot probe – the devastating pain death leaves behind.
“The tentacles of grief go deep into our communities,” said Nolte, who left his chief’s post at the end of June to focus on research. “This grief affects New Mexico profoundly across all socioeconomic lines.”
Which is why Nolte pushed to revitalize the OMI’s mission to serve not only the dead but the living by enhancing its grief support services.
“The data shows how profoundly families are affected when grief strikes as suddenly and as strongly as we see it do on a daily basis here,” he said. “What we have proposed is truly unique and powerful. I’m really proud of the plan that’s been put together.”
The initiative – funded by this year’s Legislature with a $360,000 appropriation for the first three-year phase – is in partnership with the Grief Resource Center, an Albuquerque nonprofit that has provided support groups, training, workshops, seminars and short-term individual counseling sessions since 2016.
“We share a common vision to provide more grief services,” GRC chairman Duffy Swan said.
The program will expand the number of grief services staff at OMI and link them to contract grief counselors, including those at GRC, and others in communities across the state. Contract counselors will be trained and will continue to collaborate with OMI staff using the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center’s Project ECHO, a video teleconferencing system.
In addition, the program plans to offer a grief resource website accessible to all New Mexicans.
“The goal with this initiative is to create a statewide network of specialists on grief and loss that are accessible across the state,” said Nancy Mance, OMI Grief Services program supervisor. “We don’t want to wait for families to call and say, hey, we need help. We’re saying, hey, we have help.”
The OMI investigates any death occurring in New Mexico that is sudden, violent, untimely, unexpected or in which a person is found dead and the cause of death is unknown. In 2017, the last year for which data has been compiled, the OMI performed services for 7,229 deaths. Of those, 223 were homicides, 495 were suicides, 404 were motor vehicle-related deaths and 480 were drug-caused deaths.
For each death, an estimated six to 10 family members are affected adversely – and many more are affected beyond that. People who lose loved ones to sudden, unexpected deaths – especially those that involve violence – are at much higher risk of developing “complicated grief,” which is persistent and intense and debilitating. An OMI report estimates that 71% of families dealing with homicides will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to less production at work, substance abuse problems, medical costs, withdrawing from school and relationships.
“These are the people who truly need our help,” said Mance, who Nolte credits with putting the project together. “These are people in trauma.”
The OMI began offering grief services in 1975, the first in-house program in the nation to offer bereavement counseling, psychotherapy, education and referral services, all at no charge. Budget cuts and burgeoning numbers of bodies took their toll. In 2006, the program had five grief counselors. A year later, only three remained, one who spent her time traveling across New Mexico to deal with families outside the Albuquerque area.
In 2010, the OMI moved from its small, smelly digs near the University of New Mexico Hospital into the shiny, expansive (and not smelly) $86 million New Mexico Scientific Laboratories off Interstate 25. By then, the grief services program was down to one counselor, funded largely through the federal Victims of Crime Act. A family grief room in the new facility went largely unused.
Maybe now, it will be.
Those of us who have endured the loss of a loved one – and in a state like New Mexico with high rates of violence, DWI and drug addiction, that’s a lot of us – know how grief can hollow the heart, curtail the pursuit of happiness, paralyze the body. There is a reason why those of us left behind are often referred to as “co-victims.”
Providing support and a path to healing seems a necessity.
Nolte’s profession may have centered on his work with the dead, but perhaps his greatest legacy will be what he has helped bring about for the living.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.