Dr. Leon Kelly is a reluctant politician. He became the face of the county’s COVID-19 response in March and, as El Paso County coroner and chief medical examiner, he must run for office every four years. He jokes it’s like a head cardiologist of a hospital having to run to keep the job. Kelly is currently in the middle of his first term as coroner and plans to run again in 2022. He worked 10 years in the coroner’s office before rising to lead it. His office typically completes more than 1,200 autopsies a year, about 30 percent of them for coroners in 20 surrounding counties.
Kelly has largely transitioned out of his role as deputy medical director for the county’s Public Health department, but he says he is on call whenever needed.
This week, Kelly spoke with the Business Journal about being a voice of reason during tumultuous times.
What made you choose forensic pathology as a career?
I’ve never been good at the delay of gratification. I didn’t want to do something that was going to help somebody 10 years from now. I wanted to do something right now that had significant ramifications in my community that day. When you come over to the coroner’s office, there are people waiting to find out why their loved ones are dead; there’s law enforcement wanting to know how this person was killed so they can go try to find bad guys; there are public health officials who need to know about what’s happening with infections; there are doctors who want to know what went wrong during a surgery to be better at their jobs. [Gratification] is immediate. And you get to work with cops and lawyers and public health folks and media. Reporters, cops and lawyers are the three things most doctors want nothing to do with, and that’s pretty much forensics all day, every day. So it was a way to make significant impacts immediately in the town I live in.
Did you ever think you would be a coroner while growing up?
You get to a certain point and you look back on your life, and you wonder how you ended up there. And then you can see kind of the forks in the road along the way and why you chose what you chose. A big part of it was I grew up in a trailer park on the west side of Indianapolis. It was not an easy life. It wasn’t a nice trailer park. It wasn’t like the kind where you go visit grandma in Florida. It was the Eminem version of a trailer park. I grew up with the people I serve now.
You don’t typically end up at the coroner’s office unless something really bad happened to you. It’s a lot of drugs. It’s a lot of mental illness. It’s a lot of lower socioeconomic-class people. It’s a lot of homeless people. Whereas most doctors come from families of doctors, I didn’t. When I talk to families … the vast majority are coming from these types of situations — that doesn’t make them less [human]. It doesn’t mean that the dead person is any less important to them because of the horrible situation they are in. So when I talk to them, I’ve come from a place of ‘I’ve been there.’ I know what life is probably like and how this person grew up — whereas most doctors have no idea that this is what a good chunk of America lives like.
I had substance abuse and mental health issues in my family, so when I’m having these conversations, I can see that person’s perspective, giving me the ability to stomach a lot of what we have to deal with. Every day is filled with tragedy. There’s no good days at the coroner’s office. That’s really kind of the power of the forensic pathologist. It’s a lot like emergency medicine and trauma. You see the worst of the worst every day. And so you have to have the ability to tolerate that. But also when you get on the phone to talk to their family, you have to be able to turn that compassion back on, after you shut it off to do what you have to do.
Do you ever want to run for another public service position?
I’ve been asked that question a lot more than I ever would have anticipated. I guess my answer would be that I don’t even want to run for the office that I have, let alone another one. I [run] as a necessary evil for the job I have. I do not have an interest or a passion for any office beyond that. I had zero interest [in politics] my entire life, never had any aspirations. I would honestly have been the last person you ever would have expected or picked to run for any kind of political office. I’ve no desire whatsoever to have that kind of a life. This is where I wanted to be — and that’s how it is.
How do you deal with death day in and day out?
It’s a natural part of life. When I walk into the room, we may have six to eight cases that we have to do. So you are focused on the job at hand. You don’t really have time to think about, ‘Well this is really sad.’ So you have to be able to turn that part of your brain off and just focus on the puzzle. It’s obviously a very grotesque puzzle, but you have to have that ability to do it. Certainly there are times where there’s no doubt it still affects you and can bleed through the defenses. But at the same time, you just do your job.
What have you learned from the current pandemic?
There’s a lot about life I’ve learned from the coronavirus. The reason I think many people in the community have responded to my role and how I frame the pandemic is that that’s always been my job. Politicians’ jobs are to tell people what they want to hear so that they get elected. That’s really what they do. They pitch to the people that they want to vote for them. I don’t do that. I just tell people the truth because my job is to break bad news every single day. So when things are jacked up with the coronavirus, I don’t have any problems going to the community, saying ‘Look, this is not good.’ That’s my normal job, and that’s not the normal place that elected officials, in any country at any level, are really used to doing. They’re not good at telling people bad news, but that’s what the coroner does. His or her job is to figure out here’s what went wrong, here’s what we can do right, and here’s what we need to do to fix it. And that’s kind of really the pandemic in a nutshell.
What are your thoughts as COVID-19 cases begin to rise again in the county?
We’ve always had this struggle between this perception that you either were for stopping the virus or you were for the economy and living our lives. And people were provided this kind of false choice between those two things. And the reality is that those two things are one in the same. Public health is economic health. You cannot have one without the other. For as long as we are with this thing, we are going to have to accept that this is the reality. It’s really like a two-front war. It’s the economic front, and then it’s the virus front. But in a two-front war, you lose if you lose on either side, so you always have to be able to balance those two needs together. Both of those are moving in the same direction, which is the overall health and success and safety of your community.
But this is not over — it will not be over for a very long time and so it doesn’t matter if you are tired of this. The only thing that matters is what’s important to you — a question every citizen has to ask themselves probably 100 times a day. What’s more important — being complacent, not wearing the mask, not doing the things I am supposed to do, having that family get-together for a barbecue birthday party? Is that more important than keeping my kids in school, keeping my job open or my business open, keeping my neighbors and my community safe, and getting us all collectively through it? That’s really what it comes down to every single day: individuals making a decision.
Yes, it’s fall, it’s cold, we have to go back inside. We have a lot of kids in in-person learning, We’re going to have more opportunity for the virus to spread. We know all of that. All that means is each one of us has to work harder and be more disciplined than we were before to keep this thing where it needs to be. And if we do that, we are going to be fine. There’s nothing that says that this has to end in catastrophe. We have 100 percent control, individually, over how this turns out. All we have to do is keep doing what we’ve done successfully before and not get complacent, and we can do it. I do not believe that we’re doomed to failure. I also know that it’s going to be hard and everyone of us has to make investments.
If we do that, like most things that are worth doing in life, none of them are easy, right? So it’s about doing the right thing all day every day, which we all know humans are not good at. If they were, there wouldn’t be a need for forensic pathologists in the first place or for public health departments. But that’s the choice we have. There are no shortcuts.
There is no ‘I don’t want to believe it.’ There is no ‘This is made up for this particular reason.’ The virus doesn’t care about any of our drama; it doesn’t. The options are we get to have the life that we want to have by making a few small investments and being disciplined, or not — and we all pay the consequences. That’s it.