Funeral workers eye protections against opioids
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.”