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Lunch topic: Death

by Tom Hasslinger
| April 23, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - A nurse, a doctor, a law enforcement officer, dead people and Republicans.

Quite a mesh Thursday afternoon. The qualifications for studying the deceased played center stage at the coroners debate luncheon, hosted by the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans.

Three Republican candidates, Tom Cronin, Douglas Stafford, and Debbie Wilkey, are vying for the post vacated by retiring coroner Dr. Robert West.

And each offered their diverse medical, investigative and working experiences as why they would be best for the post.

"You have to have your feet in both fields," said Wilkey, deputy coroner, of her experience as a law enforcement officer and nurse. "And I have both of those."

She said her work as deputy under West has given her a firsthand account of what the position requires, and her years as a nurse in emergency rooms have given her a closer understanding of death as it happens.

"A coroner has an intimate relationship with you when you die," she said of her experience with patients in hospital care.

The job is about understanding the physical reasons for a person's passing, and the best training ground for grasping that knowledge is in the medical field, Stafford said.

Stafford, a board certified general surgeon who completed his surgical residency at the University of North Dakota, is still doing surgery at his new practice, Vein Clinics Northwest in Coeur d'Alene.

"It adds a knowledge to the position that can't be obtained in other ways," Stafford said, adding that the majority of deaths are caused by natural causes. "I understand the relationship with organ failure and why that leads to death."

He said he wouldn't give up his practice if he were elected but ensured the crowd he would devote his full attention to the new position.

Cronin has served as police chief for the city of Coeur d'Alene and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and was with Chicago law enforcement for 31 years, many of them as a police investigator dealing with violent crimes.

Having also worked with the FBI's behavioral science unit, he learned the nuances of death investigation, he said, an expertise he will bring to the position.

"You don't get these things from books. I've been very fortunate to have those kinds of experiences," he said of the investigations. "This is death. The day for the doctor was the day before. The coroner starts the day after."

The candidates, who fielded questions from the luncheon group at The Song Bird Theater, will square off in the May 25 primary. The winner will face Jody DeLuca Hissong, a Democrat, on the November ballot.

"If you took two of the candidates and formed them together you'd have one respectable replacement for Dr. West," Wilkey said of the shoes needed to fill West's replacement.

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