POLICE INVOLVED DEATH: Aurora first responders injected ketamine 17 times in 2019, records show

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AURORA | Aurora first-responders have administered ketamine 17 times in 2019, including once in late August to a young man who had a heart attack moments after receiving the drug and died six days later, according to the man’s attorney and records recently released by the city. 

Denver Attorney Mari Newman alleged earlier this month that first responders administered up to 500 milligrams of ketamine to 23-year-old Elijah McClain after he was detained on his way home from a north Aurora convenience store Aug. 24.

Aurora police and fire officials have not specified the exact drug McClain was given, and a full autopsy report is still pending. Shortly after the incident involving McClain in the 1900 block of Billings Street, police described the drug McClain was given behind his ear as “a standard medication.”

A spokeswoman for Aurora Fire Rescue said federal health privacy laws prevent the department from specifying what medications are used during a specific patient’s treatment.

A city records supervisor confirmed to The Sentinel Oct. 23 that Aurora firefighters began carrying ketamine in January 2019. Discovered in the early 1960s, the drug has traditionally been used as a sedative, as anesthesia and as a treatment for pain and depression.

“Ketamine has been proven to be safe and effective in prehospital use,” city staff wrote in an email. “It is widely used across the state and Denver metro area.”

The state began granting medical waivers to jurisdictions seeking to use ketamine in 2013, according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data. Dozens of fire departments and emergency medical providers across the state have been approved to receive the waivers, according to state data.

Colorado first-responders used ketamine 427 times for patients exhibiting signs of “excited delirium or extreme or profound agitation” between July 2017 and Aug. 2018, according to CDPHE data. In Denver alone, first-responders administered the drug 136 times during the same period. Of all patients Denver paramedics sedated during that one-year time period, 2.7 percent received ketamine. The majority of the some 5,000 Denver patients who received a sedative during that time frame were administered midazolam, another anesthetic.

Nearly 1,000 additional people across the state — excluding Denver data — received ketamine as “a therapeutic medication in pain management” between summer 2017 and summer 2018, according to Department of Public Health data. Several clinics across the metro area offer ketamine infusions to treat pain and psychiatric conditions such as depression. At the Vitalitas Denver Ketamine Treatment Center in Littleton, a 40-minute infusion to treat psychiatric conditions runs $350, according to the organization’s website.

The state health department has described ketamine in cautious terms, saying “due to its relative newness to both emergency medicine and emergency medical services, ketamine is currently not within (the) scope of practice in Colorado and therefore currently requires a waiver for its use,” state health department staffers wrote of the drug.

Aurora Fire Rescue protocols instruct first responders to use ketamine for patients experiencing “excited delirium,” which is a debated medical term used to describe patients who appear impervious to pain, exhibit aggression and experience hyperthermia, according to city documents. Body temperatures of up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit have been recorded among people reportedly experiencing the condition, according to the same city documents. 

Excited delirium is “most commonly caused by stimulant drug abuse,” often stemming from cocaine, methamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoids. 

Still, “the exact pathophysiology and progression of excited delirium is not very well understood … First documented case was found in the 1850’s,” according to city documents. 

The first modern case of the condition was documented in 1985.

Ketamine use among law enforcement officials garnered consternation last year, after the Minnesota Star Tribune found Minneapolis police were directing first responders to administer ketamine when detaining suspects. Local hospital first responders were authorized to use ketamine under certain circumstances, but a police oversight commissions had found the drug was used on people who did not fit the description of “profoundly agitated.”

Aurora Fire personnel — not police — administered the unspecified drug to McClain Aug. 24. Most Aurora firefighters are also certified paramedics.

Newman, McClain’s attorney, has condemned Aurora police’s treatment of the Aurora resident.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Aurora Police tortured Elijah,” she said in a statement. “The video shows that the police were nothing short of sadistic, brutalizing and terrorizing a gentle, peaceful man as he lay there begging. It is disgusting.”

At a recent press conference, police rebuked that description. 

“I think the term ‘torture’ is a mischaracterization,” Deputy Police Chief Paul O’Keefe said.

A spokesperson for the Adams County Coroner’s Office, which was tasked with completing McClain’s autopsy, said the exam on McClain’s body was conducted Sept. 3, but final reports often take up to three months to complete.

Sentinel Staff Writer Grant Stringer contributed to this story.