News


Doug Clark: Tales of a life spent dealing with death

SUNDAY, JAN. 12, 2014

I couldn’t help but experience a phantom twinge when I heard that Dr. Robert West was including me in a book he’s writing about his many years as a deputy coroner and the coroner for Kootenai County.

Dr. West did give me a vasectomy, after all.

Not as a coroner, fortunately. The Harvard-trained MD and vascular surgeon had a well-established private practice in Coeur d’Alene, too.

I only bring up my misery to show how the man had his hands in, well, a lot of sensitive arenas during his long and respected career.

West is 78 now. He retired as coroner in 2011 and stepped away from his private practice about eight years prior to that.

During a phone call the other day, the good doctor assured me that he was intending to quote from one of my columns and not from my medical charts.

Whew.

So why would a county coroner write his memoirs?

West said his book – “It Can (and Does) Happen Here” – came about thanks to his children, who urged their dad to preserve some of the unavoidably strange, sad and always fascinating encounters that come with a job that deals with death.

West said he’s written 40,000 words and is in the final throes of revision. The finished product, he said, will come out sometime this year through an independent publisher.

I can’t wait to read it.

“I have no grandiose thought about being the next Patricia Cornwell,” West said, adding that the “stories and anecdotes” should speak for themselves.

Take the night a critical victim of a traffic accident rolled into the ER at Coeur d’Alene’s Kootenai Medical Center.

Despite the best efforts from a “blue-swarm” of emergency physicians and nurses, the man died. As the on-call surgeon, West went out to the “quiet room” to perform the always-tough job of breaking the news to the family.

The new widow took it hard. She sobbed uncontrollably.

Nothing groundbreaking there.

But then she stopped suddenly, gazed up at West and with deadpan seriousness asked …

“Well, who’s gonna fill his moose tag, then?”

Stunned and nonplussed, West quickly excused himself.

Then there was the case of a wannabe inventor who burned to a crisp in a trailer fire near Rathdrum.

The death was no mystery.

But what West saw when he started nosing around the still-smoldering fire scene chilled him to the core.

Dozens upon dozens of propane tanks littered the porch and yard.

The deceased had apparently come up with this exciting new way of replacing the Freon in air conditioners with his own mixture of propane and butane.

Did I mention the guy was a smoker?

The real eye-popper was in the warehouse/garage: pallet upon pallet of rusting, leaking canisters that this latter-day Edison had been trying to sell.

“This was absolutely the most volatile and dangerous situation I’ve ever been in,” West said. “It was a minefield.”

When local fire officials blew off West’s concerns over the potential for “a thermal conflagration” of epic proportion, the doctor saw red and fired off a stern letter to Idaho lawmakers and the EPA.

That got the job done.

West later learned that a hazard crew had removed “18,000 canisters of this explosive.”

As you’d expect, West’s book will include his coroner’s-eye view of some of North Idaho’s grisliest cases.

The Joseph Duncan murders, for example.

In 2005, this monster in human form bludgeoned to death three members of a family in Wolf Lodge Bay and abducted two children, Shasta Groene, 8, and her 9-year-old brother, Dylan.

Only Shasta would survive this horror show.

Duncan awaits his deserved fate on death row, may it come soon.

West said a case like Duncan’s makes the larger point that authorities have to be careful and exact – from the collection of evidence to the autopsy tables.

He also makes the plea for coroners with medical backgrounds.

That seemed like such a no-brainer until West pointed out what should be one of his book’s biggest shockers: Between 1984 through 2011 – when West was Kootenai County coroner – there were just “three physician coroners in all of Idaho.”

The requirements to run for coroner are often just being 21 and a resident of the county for a year.

West fell into the job in 1970 as a favor, not long after moving to Coeur d’Alene. He was asked to fill in as deputy coroner by then-coroner Dr. William Wood, who was traveling out of town.

“He said, ‘Raise your right hand,’ ” recalled West with a laugh. “Next thing I know I’m responsible to investigate all deaths due to other than natural causes in the county.”

West agreed, believing physicians have an obligation to set an example. He kept with it year after year, eventually running for and winning the coroner’s post when Wood called it quits.

My former doc is the first to admit that he is not a forensic pathologist. As a well-trained physician, however, West was more than qualified to determine which deaths were suspicious enough to need expert examination.

The Spokane Medical Examiner’s Office conducts autopsies for Kootenai County.

“It’s important to have someone with some medical sensibilities” in the coroner positions, he said.

Coeur d’Alene, with its world-class lake and natural splendors, provided an idyllic backdrop for a guy who often stared straight into the eyes of death. West and Martha, his wife of 56 years, raised five kids there.

But don’t kid yourself.

West’s sleep was invaded many times by the visions of things he had seen.

“There are more nights than you can believe that you wake up and think – oh, no,” West said. “You don’t turn it off. This is a job that deals with the unpleasant side of life.”

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.


There are 23 comments on this story »