When the New York Times wanted to do a story about the opioid crisis in New Hampshire, they spoke with the state’s then Chief Medical Examiner Thomas Andrew, MD.
Dr. Andrew is a member of the Contoocook UMC, and a deacon candidate.
According to the Oct. 7, 2017 story featuring Dr. Andrew
, New Hampshire “has more deaths per capita from synthetic opioids like fentanyl than any other state,” and deaths from overdose have increased tenfold since 2000.
Dr. Andrew told the Times: “It’s almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble. I’m not an alarmist by nature, but this is not overhyped. It has completely overwhelmed us.”
But he did not retire from the ME’s office because he was overwhelmed. It was part of his plan from the start.
“I didn’t want to stay beyond 20 years, because I think a public agency tends to get stale after 20 years of the same management,” Dr. Andrew said. “I think it’s always good, particularly in the public sector, to have fresh eyes.”
“Plus,” he said, “at 20 years, you still should have some gas in the tank.” And it seems he does: He will begin his studies at United Theological Seminary in January 2018.
Attending seminary will, naturally, immerse him in a community of faith (even attending online as he plans), but Dr. Andrew said he connected with many people of “unabashed faith” throughout his second medical career. He had been a pediatrician before moving to forensic medicine.
“When I transitioned to forensic pathology – sometimes people find this ironic, but it makes perfect sense to me – I met far more believers who were very open about their faith in forensic medicine than I ever did in pediatrics,” he said. “I think it’s precisely because of what we see on a day-to-day basis.”
He went on: “We [forensic pathologists] see it and live every single day, and it’s not just that person we’re examining, it’s that interaction with family after the fact, which is a ministry of sorts that, I think, if you are viewing it through the right spiritual prism, can bring you closer to God rather than pushing you away from God. … You can face this horror every day and go in one direction or another.”
That “ministry of sorts” with loved ones, Dr. Andrew said, did not always mean talking with believers or about faith.
He most often talked with family members to share information about the cause of death, what was next, when their loved one’s body would be released, and to extend condolences.
“Now, sometimes that’s the extent of the conversation. But there are quite a number of people (for whom) that conversation isn’t enough,” Dr. Andrew said. “They need to voice whatever it is they need to voice.”
Some express anger, he said, over the need for an autopsy or even at their loved one for “doing whatever foolish thing they were doing to lead to their sudden and unexpected death.” Sometimes it’s just a need to talk about their loved one – this is particularly true when opioids are involved, he said.
“These are profoundly grieving parents who really, really feel the strong need to tell me what a wonderful kid that was. And they didn’t want me, a total stranger, to come away thinking that theirs was a bad kid because I was doing this drug investigation on them,” Dr. Andrew said. “They need to let me know, and you just reinforce that. It’s largely listening. I don’t do a lot of talking with them, save to do an occasional sort of verbal hug, if you will, over the phone.”
There are times, Dr. Andrew said, when he could tell the person on the phone was a person of faith, and it made a difference.
“When you are clearly connecting with someone who is a believer it really can be a time of real – I won’t say healing – but at least a start of healing for those people, to know that there’s someone who dealt with their loved one who has the same basic world view that they have, at least in terms of that power that is greater than us in interacting with their loved one,” he said.
He recalled speaking with the father of a boy who had died from an undetected heart problem.
“I called his father after the examination, and his father asked me how I was doing. That was a very moving thing for me, to have a man who just lost his 7- or 8-year-old son asking how I was doing. It just knocked me off my chair,” Dr. Andrew said. “That could only come from someone who has faith.”
Dr. Andrew’s new ministry would be of a very different kind. “My ultimate plan is to be the designated full-time chaplain for the Daniel Webster Council of Boy Scouts, which encompasses the entire state of New Hampshire,” he said.
Fulfilling that ambition would bring Dr. Andrew a long way from the ME’s office, but also back to his very first ministry experience and what seems to have been the start of his calling.
Dr. Andrew was raised in the Presbyterian church. While he respected the “dour but very warm and nurturing – those two aren’t mutually exclusive – Calvinist towering figure” who was pastor of his home church, it was the “young, hip” Methodist pastor at the church where his Boy Scout troop was chartered who inspired him.
The Rev. Joel Baer gave him his first ministry opportunity when he asked a 14-year-old Andrew to preach the sermon on Scout Sunday.
“My confirmation classes certainly convinced me that Jesus was my savior, and that there was a way to live one’s life to try and reflect his glory,” Dr. Andrew said. “But as far as reaching other people with it? That never dawned on me until Pastor Baer put me up in front of this congregation, and I felt that sort of magic that occurs when you’re connecting. … I do remember the feeling as if it were yesterday. I think it’s fair to say that was the beginnings of an inkling of a call.”
At this writing, Dr. Andrew was still wrapping up some cases at the ME’s office, and we turned back to the opioid situation to talk about what he thinks churches can do to help.
“I think our charge as individual Christians is simply to love our neighbor. That sounds trite and cliché-ish on the surface of it, but this can only be met on a church level, I think, one person, one heart, at a time,” he said. “A given congregation, if they can reach out to the person or persons in their own midst [who are] caught up in this, only that can change that particular heart and lead them on the road to recovery.”
He referred to the story about a boy on a beach littered with starfish; the boy is picking them up and throwing them back into the water. When a passerby asks what he’s doing, the boy says “Well, I’m saving these starfish.” The man laughs and replies, “You can’t save all of these.” The kid throws one in the water, and says “I just saved that one.”
“Jesus said the poor will always be among us. Well, the addicted will always be among us, too,” Dr. Andrew said. “That drive or that need to be in an altered state has been with us for thousands of years, and that will be a struggle that we face forever. I get it, we’re tossing that one starfish back. But at least that one’s going to be OK. That’s the way I view it. It’s not earth-changing. It’s not the golden key, but that’s all I know how to do.”