Overwhelmed by Deaths From Drug Overdose, Medical Examiner Quits to Become Chaplain

After watching body after body robbed of life by drug overdose pile up on his job, Dr. Thomas Andrew retired last month as the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire to become a chaplain.

"It's almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble," Andrew told The New York Times about the worst drug epidemic in America's history. "I'm not an alarmist by nature, but this is not overhyped. It has completely overwhelmed us."

The 60-year-old doctor, who spent some two decades as chief forensic pathologist in New Hampshire witnessing the ravages of drugs on life, will be studying at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, to prepare him for his second act — ministering to young people about staying away from drugs.

"After seeing thousands of sudden, unexpected or violent deaths, I have found it impossible not to ponder the spiritual dimension of these events for both the deceased and especially those left behind," he told The New York Times.

Overdoses have become the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. In 2016, 64,000 deaths, a 22 percent increase over the previous year, were attributed to drug overdoses nationwide.

Last year, there were 500 deaths in New Hampshire due to drug overdose, says The New York Times. That's more deaths per capita from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl than in any other state.

Data from the state show that drug users in their 20s and 30s are increasingly dying of heart-valve infections, known as endocarditis. The trend, said Andrew, is the result of drug abusers using dirty needles.

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"We have seen more endocarditis in the last two years than we have in the previous 15 combined," Andrew explained.

In May, he said carfentanil, was introduced to the New Hampshire market. In a public warning in 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration described carfentanil as a Schedule II substance under the Controlled Substances Act. It is used as a tranquilizing agent for elephants and other large mammals. The agency said it is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which itself is 50 times more potent than heroin.

While the lethal dose range for carfentanil in humans is unknown, fentanyl, can be lethal at the 2-milligram range, depending on route of administration and other factors, the DEA says.

"Carfentanil is surfacing in more and more communities," DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said. "We see it on the streets, often disguised as heroin. It is crazy dangerous. Synthetics such as fentanyl and carfentanil can kill you. I hope our first responders — and the public — will read and heed our health and safety warning. These men and women have remarkably difficult jobs and we need them to be well and healthy."

In New Hampshire, there have been 41 suspected carfentanil deaths, The New York Times reported. A total of 11 of them have been confirmed so far.

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

Andrew plans on becoming an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church, where he hopes to serve as a chaplain for the Boy Scouts of America, and join the Appalachian Trail Chaplaincy of the United Methodist Church to minister to troubled hikers as well.