Fu­neral work­ers eye pro­tec­tions against opi­oids

Record Observer - - Religion - By CON­NIE CON­NOLLY cconnolly@ches­pub.com

CHESTERTOWN — An Ohio po­lice of­fi­cer’s har­row­ing en­counter with a dan­ger­ous syn­thetic opi­oid last month has prompted lo­cal fu­neral homes to adopt pro­to­cols to help pro­tect their direc­tors and aides from a sim­i­lar fate.

Fel­lows, Helfen­bein and New­nam Fu­neral Homes heard from Al­lan Schauber May 26 about how fu­neral per­son­nel can pro­tect them­selves when they en­counter a vic­tim of a fa­tal drug over­dose.

Schauber has been with the Kent-Queen Anne’s Res­cue Squad for 34 years and is cur­rently chief. He also has worked part-time for four years as a fu­neral aide for Fel­lows, Helfen­bein and New­nam Fu­neral Homes.

“A lot of peo­ple don’t re­al­ize, we are first re­spon­ders as well,” Schauber said. “We’re mov­ing peo­ple that po­ten­tially many have sub­stances or pow­ders on them that could be lethal to us. Just like EMTs and paramedics, it could be lethal to them.”

“As al­ways, we have a univer­sal pre­cau­tions kit,” Kirk Helfen­bein said. “But we asked Al­lan, as an em­ployee of ours, to look into ex­tra equip­ment, if in fact we could save any­one’s life.”

Helfen­bein is pres­i­dent of the com­pany that owns five fu­neral homes in Kent, Queen Anne’s and Tal­bot coun­ties.

Typ­i­cally, fu­neral direc­tors and aides wear suits to show re­spect to the fam­i­lies when they re­move the de­ceased. How­ever, new safety pro­to­cols have been adopted for re­mov­ing a sus­pected over­dose vic­tim.

In ad­di­tion to la­tex gloves they usu­ally wear, FHN per­son­nel will now don pro­tec­tive gowns and a N95 dis­pos­able res­pi­ra­tor mask, Schauber said.

“When we’re called to a scene, (we) want to be com­pas­sion­ate, and we don’t want to go in fully suited up (in gowns and masks),” Helfen­bein said. “But with those new drugs that are out there, we’re def­i­nitely go­ing to be tak­ing ex­tra pre­cau­tions.”

“What woke up the fu­neral home was the Ohio po­lice of­fi­cer,” Schauber said. “It could hap­pen here on any type of call.”

Helfen­bein is friends with a fu­neral direc­tor in East Liver­pool, Ohio, where po­lice of­fi­cer Chris Green over­dosed af­ter he brushed white pow­der off his uni­form with his bare hand.

The pow­der was fen­tanyl that ab­sorbed through his skin. For­tu­nately, emer­gency re­spon­ders who were al­ready on the scene ad­min­is­tered Nar­can to coun­ter­act the deadly ef­fects of the pow­er­ful syn­thetic opi­oid. He sur­vived only af­ter re­ceiv­ing three more doses of Nar­can.

In East Liver­pool, Helfen­bein said, his friend “had some­one come into his fu­neral home and (over­dosed) in the bath­room. They had to call 911 to come and ad­min­is­ter Nar­can. A week later he sees his obit­u­ary in the pa­per.”

“It’s across the countr y,” Helfen­bein said. “I was in Omaha re­cently, and ev­ery­body is deal­ing with the same ex­act prob­lem. It’s in East Liver­pool, St. Pete, and on the East­ern Shore.”

In Mary­land, a drug-re­lated death be­comes a crime scene in­volv­ing the po­lice depart­ment, Schauber said.

“The chief med­i­cal ex­am­iner would have some­one on the scene as well, and it’s usu­ally two to three hours be­fore a fu­neral direc­tor is called,” he said.

How­ever, traces of a dan­ger­ous opi­oid can linger at the scene or even on the vic­tim. “There’s noth­ing say­ing there might be some­thing in a pocket. You start mov­ing some­one around, and now you have a re­ally fine dust in the air and you’re con­tam­i­nated,” Schauber said. “You can have just grams on your skin and over­dose.”

Fen­tanyl, ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land Depart­ment of Health and Men­tal Hy­giene, is be­ing used to cut heroin or as a heroin sub­sti­tute. It is “a sub­stance 100 times more po­tent than mor­phine and 50 times more po­tent than heroin,” the MDHMH states on its web­site.

How­ever, car­fen­tanil is an even greater dan­ger for first re­spon­ders.

“Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize how pow­er­ful and po­tent this stuff is,” Schauber said.

He quoted in­for­ma­tion he picked up at the Kent County Health Depart­ment. “It is 10,000 times more po­tent than mor­phine. It is a 100 times more po­tent than fen­tanyl,” Schauber said. “It’s pri­mary use ... is as a tran­quil­iz­ing agent for ele­phants and other large an­i­mals. That’s car fen­tanil. That’s what’s driv­ing this (con­cern).

“This stuff is dan­ger­ous,” Schauber said. “The fu­neral homes are look­ing at how to bet­ter pro­tect their peo­ple.”

While Helfen­bein was re­luc­tant to quan­tify the num­ber of fam­i­lies af­fected by fa­tal drug over­doses of their loved ones, he said the is­sue is be­ing talked about more openly in fu­neral ser­vices by fam­i­lies and clergy as a way of warn­ing oth­ers.

Helfen­bein’s im­me­di­ate steps to min­i­mize po­ten­tial haz­ards to his fel­low direc­tors and em­ploy­ees have changed com­pany safety pro­to­cols, but his over­rid­ing con­cern is try­ing to help fam­i­lies of drug over­dose vic­tims heal, he said.

“I can’t re­mem­ber any­thing like it, I re­ally can’t,” Helfen­bein said. “It’s af­fected so many peo­ple. I’ve seen such tragedy, and peo­ple’s hearts be­ing torn out. I hate to see these par­ents suf­fer. Your heart just just bleeds for these peo­ple.”

KIRK HELFEN­BEIN

AL­LAN SCHAUBER

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