This December marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Jack Fishman, the man who invented naloxone. Fishman's family describes him as a brilliant yet humble man, but his life was also filled with many ironies. More than 40 years after inventing a medicine that would save hundreds of thousands of lives from opioid overdose, Fishman lost his own stepson to a heroin overdose. He also died not knowing the true impact of his invention or how many second chances it has afforded to those who struggle with addiction. Thankfully, his family has stepped up to right those wrongs.
Born in 1930 in Poland, Fishman fled before the Nazi invasion and eventually immigrated to the United States. During his early 30s he worked for a small private lab in New York City. It was here, while trying to come up with a way to treat constipation caused by chronic opioid use, that he invented naloxone, a medicine that temporarily blocks the effects of opioids in the body. In 1961 when Fishman and his business partner applied for a patent for naloxone, they had no idea how many lives their invention would save.
Though naloxone would go on to become standard treatment for opioid overdose in every ambulance and emergency room across the country, Fishman did not benefit financially from its popularity. Once his original patent expired, the cost of acquiring another was too much and he did not reapply, allowing his lucrative invention to be snapped up by large pharmaceutical companies who have profited ever since.
Another great irony of his life, and one that would haunt him, is that Jack Fishman's stepson, Jonathan Stampler, died of a heroin overdose in Florida in 2004. Though naloxone was available to lay people in many states as an emergency tool to combat opioid overdose, Florida was (and still is) one of a dwindling number of states that has not modified its laws to increase naloxone access for people who use opioids and their loved ones.
"It never even occurred to us that naloxone could save Jonathan," said his mother, Joy Stampler, who was married to Jack Fishman. "Back then we didn't think of naloxone as a household item. Doctors weren't writing take-home prescriptions for it. It was hard for Jack to get naloxone even though he invented it!"
According to this mother, Jonathan had been drug-free for five years before a relapse took his life. His girlfriend also overdosed on opioids a year later.
"One of Jack's greatest sadnesses was that he couldn't save my brother," says Julie Stampler, Jonathan's sister. "Jack had invented naloxone so many years ago that he had no connection to it anymore."
This lack of connection to his invention meant that even as naloxone was being distributed to lay people as early as 1996, Jack Fishman never knew about it. While the world crowed over the lifesaving properties of this remarkable medicine, no one searched for the man who had invented it. It wasn't until after his death on December 7, 2013, that the New York Times and other news outlets started to run articles connecting Jack Fishman to naloxone.
"I didn't know about naloxone being used to save lives outside emergency rooms until my father died," said his son, Neil Fishman. "Articles started circling about the opioid epidemic and how many lives naloxone is saving. We [in the family] were all shocked."
But shock has translated to action. Joy Stampler has become an outspoken proponent of naloxone availability and will launch a foundation in January in Jack Fishman's name to make naloxone more available to mothers of people who struggle with addiction. Her daughter Julie Stampler recently attended the Harm Reduction Coalition Conference in Baltimore where she spoke eloquently of her stepfather and the importance of naloxone in giving people second chances to recover from addiction. Neil Fishman has worked with his state representatives in Maine on legislation to increase naloxone access and to pass 911 Good Samaritan laws to encourage people to call 911 to report an overdose. Other members of Jack Fishman's family have also become involved in promoting naloxone.
"It's a tremendous legacy that my father left this world," says Neil. "Naloxone is a miracle drug and I don't use that word lightly. Ask virtually any health care worker."
It's a tragedy that Jack Fishman died without ever knowing the extent of his impact on saving lives from overdose. But then again, he was a humble man. Perhaps he would prefer to remain the unsung hero of overdose prevention.