With Opioid Overdose Deaths Piling Up, New Hampshire Medical Examiner Quits the Morgue

Dr. Thomas Andrew, the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire, retired last month. Bodies from overdose deaths have overwhelmed medical examiners across the country. (Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)
Dr. Thomas Andrew, the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire, retired last month. Bodies from overdose deaths have overwhelmed medical examiners across the country. (Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

In the state morgue here, in the industrial maze of a hospital basement, Dr. Thomas A. Andrew was slicing through the lung of a 36-year-old woman when white foam seeped out onto the autopsy table.

Foam in the lungs is a sign of acute intoxication caused by an opioid. So is a swollen brain, which she also had. But Dr. Andrew, the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire, would not be certain of the cause of death until he could rule out other causes, like a brain aneurysm or foul play, and until after the woman’s blood tests had come back.

With the nation snared in what the government says is the worst drug epidemic in its history, routine autopsies like this one, which take more than two hours, are overtaxing medical examiners everywhere.

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

As Dr. Andrew, an energetic man of 60 who, with his close-cropped gray beard, resembles the actor Richard Dreyfuss, has watched the drug toll mount, he is no longer content simply to catalog it. He wants to try, in his own small way, to stop it.

After laboring here as the chief forensic pathologist for two decades, exploring the mysteries of the dead, he retired last month to explore the mysteries of the soul. In a sharp career turn, he is entering a seminary program to pursue a divinity degree, and ultimately plans to minister to young people to stay away from drugs.

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

With 64,000 overdose deaths last year nationwide — a staggering 22 percent jump over the previous year — it is little wonder that overdoses, the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, are reducing life expectancy. They are also straining the staffs and resources of morgues, and causing major backlogs.

This is especially true in New Hampshire, which has more deaths per capita from synthetic opioids like fentanyl than any other state. Last year the overdose death toll here reached nearly 500, almost 10 times the number in 2000.

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SOURCE: KATHARINE Q. SEELYE 
The New York Times