Nicole Leigh Redhorse was only 34 years old, and her 2007 death was a tragedy with elements of sex, murder and betrayal. Nicole was young, beautiful, brilliant, beloved and an alcoholic.
Nicole’s alcohol addiction slowly became apparent after she graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1995. I don’t know if her alcohol abuse began in college, but it must have been stressful to attend a university so far from home. She probably wanted to fit in. That’s how I felt when I was in college 20 years earlier.
I don’t recall I’d ever tasted alcohol before college, but in order to fit in, I went to local hang-outs where eager students and some of the popular professors, intoxicated by bold ideas and beer, contemplated the mysteries of the universe.
Beer tasted dreadful, and the effects were worse. I didn’t experience the euphoric, uninhibited high others enjoyed. I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach. But everybody else was drinking, so I did, too.
After one such evening, I fell asleep while driving home drunk in the wee hours. I woke in terror to the squeal of tires as my car fishtailed across the highway and skidded sideways into a utility pole.
I was unhurt; two men driving by stopped and pushed me out of the ditch, and I made it home.
I never again drank more than a glass of any alcoholic beverage. I rarely went to the hang-outs.
Thirty years later, when Nicole died in a Durango motel, the victim of a savage sexual assault perpetrated while she was too drunk to defend herself or call for help, I was a medical doctor, a forensic pathologist and coroner of La Plata County. During that investigation, I experienced something rare for me: an emotional connection.
I never really knew Nicole or any of the other people whose dead bodies I’ve explored. I’m only given snippets from their lives. But once in a while among those snippets, I recognize a fragment of a life that could have come from mine.
I think there was a point in Nicole’s life and one in mine where we differed in little more than the years coming between us. I can see each of us sitting late at night at a table deeply carved with initials and dates, where sweat from foaming mugs and pitchers left damp rings and running ink reduced to an indecipherable blur the profound thoughts we’d scribbled on cocktail napkins. I can hear laughter and excited conversation, good-natured arguments and clinking glasses, and I can feel the splendid soaring of our youthful, hopeful dreams.
Neurochemistry, not morality, was responsible for the very different effects of alcohol upon our minds and the consequent very different trajectories of our lives to a point of intersection where one of us lay on an autopsy table and the other raised a scalpel.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.