LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- On Oct. 1 2017, the Clark County Office of the Coroner and Medical Examiner was overwhelmed by death.
In the days and weeks that followed, the sheer scale of the massacre began to take its toll on the staff.
Felicia Borla and Mikayla Murray are two of 99 staff members whose personal and professional lives were turned upside down after the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Borla is a coroner investigator and responds to all death scenes.
“I actually do the body exams, the initial one, head to toe, front to back,” Borla said. “This morning, I already handled two cases.”
Murray is an office specialist who deals primarily with finances. She also helps to clean and return the personal belongings of people who have recently died.
“It’s something different every day. It’s not a typical office job,” Murray said.
On 1 October, each of them had a job to do. The level of chaos reached a fever pitch as family and friends of concert-goers tried to locate their loved ones.
“We’ve never had something like that, in that magnitude, of that violence,” Murray said.
At first, anyone trying to locate a loved one who attended the Route 91 Harvest Festival was directed to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters downtown. On the night of the shooting, Borla began by talking to people there.
“They were checked out by paramedics but they were scraped up, they were bruised, they saw their loved one shot and they had their blood on top of them,” Borla said.
Eventually, people were moved to the family assistance center where there was more room.
“It was a whirlwind for about three days straight of just being with families,” Borla said.
Murray had just finished celebrating her birthday when she heard the news of a mass shooting. When she went to bed that night, the death toll was 20. When she woke up, it had reached 58.
Although she was supposed to be off, Murray called to see if they needed help. A supervisor told her they needed help with property.
In a small room with a sink and cleaning supplies, Murray spent the next nine hours cleaning the personal property of many of the 58 people who died, later seeing to it that the items were returned to family members.
“There was one lady that came in -- she fell to the floor and I sat with her on the floor for probably a half hour. And just sat with her. That's all you can really do is just be there with them,” said Murray.
When all 58 victims were identified and their belongings returned, things began to calm down at the coroner’s office.
But for Murray, Borla and several other employees, the end of chaos at work became the beginning of something they were once again not prepared for.
“I didn’t want to go into public places. I went to a [Vegas Golden] Knights game like two weeks later and I was terrified,” Murray said.
Borla had a similar experience at the First Friday event downtown.
“I looked around and suddenly I just started having anxiety. I never really have anxiety. And it was the oddest effect to me to hear the bands, smell the beer, see people in a crowd, see people lined up, and that was exactly what my mind had imagined when everybody was telling me their stories,” Borla said. “So I had to leave First Friday. I couldn’t handle it. Being there.”
The stress of being professionally and emotionally involved in the shooting was taking its toll.
“It was weird. Everyone was quieter than normal. Everyone was trying to process what happened differently. Probably the next couple of weeks was when it really started affecting us,” Murray said.
“We started noticing a little bit that we weren’t feeling. We weren’t feeling anything anymore. It was like we had our week of feeling and then all of a sudden now we had no feeling. Like we all went numb,” said Borla.
At a debriefing held by Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg, Borla and Murray realized they were not alone.
While sitting in a circle of about 50 staff members, others came forward and discussed some of the challenges they were struggling to overcome.
“I wasn’t the first one to cry, but I did cry. A majority of the people cried,” Murray said.
It was clear the shell-shock of what transpired days before had settled in among the ranks and Fudenberg had to address it. He called on Dr. Annie Weisman, head of integrated medicine at the UNLV School of Medicine.
Weisman put her faith in two students to conduct a research study to determine if meditation therapy could help staff cope with the trauma associated with a mass shooting.
Second year medical student Laura Wozniak and third-year medical student Ashley Prandecki took on the challenge.
“The goal was to work with coroners and different employees who were involved with the mass shooting and kind of see how they were dealing with their emotions and how we can figure out ways to help them through these different modalities,” said Wozniak.
“There are meditation studies but not specifically in coroner’s offices and how they are impacted by it. This is one of the first studies for coroner’s offices doing these kinds of things,” said Prandecki. “People don’t tend to think about the coroner’s office as much when they think of other first responders.”
At first, staff members were skeptical of meditation as a form of healing.
“My co-worker encouraged me to go, I was like, ‘I don’t know, it kind of seems hippie.’ I wasn’t sure about it,” Murray said.
Eventually Murray gave in.
“We were all game for it. Lets see. We’ll be the guinea pigs and see if this works,” Borla said.
Three times a week for eight weeks, participating staff members were guided by meditation instructors in a small room within the coroner’s office.
The room is furnished with a few chairs, a beanbag chair, a quilt on the ground, a tapestry that hangs from the wall, mood candles and a glowing salt lamp.
“Participants would sit quietly, realize what thoughts are going through their head, let them go, detach themselves from their emotions a little bit and ground themselves,” said third year medical student Ashley Prandecki.
Before and after each session, Wozniak and Prandecki would take the participants’ vital signs including their blood pressure and heart rate.
The aspiring doctors said the results from their testing was clear.
“We did find a pretty significant decrease in those anxiety levels at the end of the eight week period,” Prandecki said.
“It definitely helped. It helped me balance my emotions better. It helped with my anxiety,” Murray said.
Borla said she became a believer after she reviewed the results of her vital signs before and after a meditation session.
“So much of us are based in science here, we wanted to see some real data. To actually see blood pressure and heart rates and the change ... was nice for us to see,” Borla said.
The meditation room inside the coroner’s office is now a permanent fixture and dedicated to anyone who needs to take a breather.
Staff say the meditation room and sessions did more than ease their anxiety. It also turned work colleagues into good friends.
“Different sections of the office got to kind of bond on top of all this. That was good too,” Borla said.
The success of meditation can also be seen in the way coworkers began to once again interact.
“We even made jokes that we needed our meditation time if we started getting on each others nerves,” Borla said.
Wozniak and Prandecki were looking to have their study published in a medical journal before the year is over.