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‘People actually die from this’

Janet Urquhart

Aspen’s reputation as a party town is apparently well deserved. Just ask a physician working the night shift in the emergency room at Aspen Valley Hospital on a busy weekend. It’s a sobering perspective.”A good night would be when you don’t get someone drunk at 2 a.m. who has fallen and split their head or had a car accident,” said Dr. Steve Ayers, an emergency room doctor and Pitkin County’s coroner. “I would guess more than half the nights, we have something come in.”When Elaine Crowley, house supervisor with the nursing staff, arrived in Aspen from a much bigger city 12 years ago.”I was surprised that such a small town could have so many problems,” she said.Now, cognizant of the lifestyle in an international resort, Crowley isn’t surprised, but she and her colleagues aren’t blind to it, either.”We see a fair amount of abuse – where people aren’t addicted but just choose to use it,” Ayers said.The numbers indicate substance abuse cases, involving alcohol or other drugs, don’t constitute a staggering percentage of the care the hospital provides. They amounted to a little more than 1 percent of the emergency room visits in 2003, but a string of headlines this spring brought the issue front and center.Aspenites found themselves reading about a series of tragedies, including the cocaine-related deaths of two valley residents in one month, followed by the suicide-via-overdose of a longtime local musician who’d battled drug abuse.”I don’t know that it’s out of proportion here compared to anywhere else, but that doesn’t make it any more right,” said Ayers.Aspen is also somewhat unique in the types of substance abuse it sees. By far, the hospital treats more alcohol-related cases than other types of drugs, but the drug of choice tends to be cocaine, according to Ayers. Users of Ecstasy, a hallucinogenic, show up at the hospital on occasion, as well.The cheaper street drugs of large urban areas – crack, heroin and meth – don’t appear prevalent, he said.Though whiffs of pot waft from the occasional chairlift and among outdoor concert crowds, and cocaine at a party isn’t likely to raise anyone’s eyebrows, substance abuse cases aren’t a huge part of the local hospital’s caseload.Then there are the cases that Ayers sees, not in his role as a medical provider, but in his job as coroner.”I see the ones who don’t make it – the ones who die before they get here, so I get a different perspective,” he said. “We need to realize this is a real thing – people actually die from this.”Vail, Colorado


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