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How the opioid crisis inspired NH’s medical examiner to make a career change

There are many consequences to the current opioid epidemic much of the country — including New Hampshire — is facing. Over the last several years, what’s become the deadliest drug crisis in American history has torn families apart, prompted louder calls for access to effective treatment for addiction, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killed more than 64,000 people nationwide in 2016.

We’ve talked before about the effects of this crisis.  Now we are learning of another negative impact we hadn’t yet considered: professional burnout.

A recent New York Times article focused on the decision of New Hampshire’s now former chief medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Andrew, to retire early from the position he’d held for 20 years. Instead of working to keep up with the rapidly rising number of drug-related deaths that is straining the resources of the state morgue, Dr. Andrew will now turn his attention to the living. He is pursuing a divinity degree to become a Methodist deacon and ultimately help people avoid addiction.

To put the increased caseload and current backlog of pending autopsies into perspective, the article points to the fact that by industry standards, a medical examiner’s office is considered deficient if an individual pathologist must perform more than 250 autopsies per year. Last year, Dr. Andrew his deputy performed 250 each. Until this past summer, the medical examiner’s office only had two pathologists on staff since Dr. Andrew started in 1997.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Andrew was overwhelmed. The total number of deaths from overdoses in New Hampshire last year was ten times the number in 2000. Dr. Andrew’s handwritten notes that have logged causes of death over the past two decades is a more revealing time lapse look at how the opioid epidemic seemed to slowly creep into New Hampshire and now has our state in a stranglehold we can’t loosen.

In spite of the challenges, Dr. Andrew’s office has maintained its excellent record of timely reporting. But you can understand why a backlog of cases would cause any pathologist to be concerned about the ability to keep up and face professional reprimands.   

To say Dr. Andrew has intimate knowledge of what drugs can do to a person would be understating his experience as the state’s chief medical examiner.  Perhaps the opioid epidemic did not force Dr. Andrew to pursue a career change to minister young people, but he has chosen a new path to make a different contribution to our society. When once he saw the grim end of addiction, Dr. Andrew hope he can make a difference at the start, or even before it begins.

We can’t think of a more powerful calling, and we wish him well. Thank you, Dr. Andrew, for your service to our state.

Preplanning your final arrangements ensures that your family understands your final wishes and alleviates a great deal of stress.

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