Overwhelmed By Opioid Deaths, Medical Examiner Leaves For Seminary School

By Kelly Burch 10/11/17

“I have found it impossible not to ponder the spiritual dimension of these events for both the deceased and especially those left behind.”

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Last year Dr. Thomas A. Andrew performed 250 autopsies as the chief medical examiner in New Hampshire—the maximum number that he can perform in a year and have his office keep accreditation.

Because of the opioid epidemic that has rattled the rural state, Andrew’s office is performing more autopsies than ever before, and he’s not sure if he’ll be able to keep under 250 (and thus keep his accreditation) this year. 

“It’s almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble,” Andrew told The New York Times. “I’m not an alarmist by nature, but this is not overhyped. It has completely overwhelmed us.”

In addition to straining the office, the continuous flow of people whose lives have been cut short has put a personal strain on Andrew. After 20 years as a medical examiner, he plans to leave his job to go to seminary. In the future he hopes to minister to young people who are at risk of using drugs. 

“After seeing thousands of sudden, unexpected or violent deaths,” he said, “I have found it impossible not to ponder the spiritual dimension of these events for both the deceased and especially those left behind.”

In New Hampshire, nearly 500 people died of drug overdoses last year, spurred by the growing presence of fentanyl in street heroin. Because it is more powerful, fentanyl increases the likelihood of fatal overdose and increases the burden for the medical examiner’s office. Even if it seems clear that someone died of a drug overdose, a full autopsy must be performed in order to rule out other causes of death. 

The strain of doing those autopsies, Andrew told The New York Times, has affected all cases throughout the state. Even cases that don’t have anything to do with drugs are delayed because of the overwhelming number of bodies coming through the medical examiner’s office. 

“Not all are drug cases,” Andrew said. “But all are swept up in the backlog.”

This year Andrew’s office has confirmed 11 deaths involving carfentanil, an extremely powerful opioid, with another 30 suspected cases. Andrew worries about what impact carfentanil will have on the state’s overdose rate. 

“It makes me feel like my hair is on fire, and I don’t even have hair,” he said. “We’re already so far behind the eight-ball here, if we have an influx of carfentanil in this state, heaven help us.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.