Narcan Inventor's Stepson Died of a Heroin Overdose, Widow Reveals While Lobbying for Needle Exchange in Florida

Narcan Inventor's Stepson Died of a Heroin Overdose, Widow Reveals While Lobbying for Needle Exchange in Florida
Jess Swanson

In 1961, Dr. Jack Fishman applied for a patent on nalaxone, a powerful drug he created during his part-time work at a New York pharmaceutical lab. The substance safely reverses overdoses for users of opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers.

In the 1970s, hospitals and emergency responders clamored to have it readily available as heroin use increased across America. Now first responders all over the country are again stocking the drug and training to administer it, as it has been shown to reverse the effects of overdoses of prescription drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin as well. 

Fishman's patent has expired, and the drug is now available as a generic and is more commonly known by the brand-name version Narcan. When Fishman passed away in 2013, the New York Times heralded Fishman for “saving countless people from fatal overdoses.”

But he couldn't save his stepson, Jonathan.

Now for the first time, Fishman's widow, Joy Fishman, is publicly revealing that the doctor's own stepson died from a heroin overdose. The addiction haunted his stepfather and today motivates Joy to fight for legalization of a needle exchange in Florida.

Jack moved to Miami and became president of Ivax, a pharmaceutical company. Jonathan Fishman, who was born years after his stepfather developed nalaxone, became addicted to heroin. In Florida, where the law prohibits selling needles without a prescription and possessing them can result in charges for drug paraphernalia, he was arrested several times for stealing needles from pharmacies. He contracted Hepatitis C from sharing dirty needles. Then, in 2006, at age 34, he died of a heroin overdose in Hialeah. 

Fishman says her son had been clean for a few years and then relapsed. His body wasn't used to his old dose. His dealers took him to the hospital but wouldn't bring him inside because they were scared of police. At the time, Narcan wasn't readily available, as it is now.

“It's an ironic tragedy that my son died of an overdose and the medicine that my husband created would've saved him,” Fishman says. “My husband was depressed afterward. Jonathan's death made him feel so incompetent.”

Joy Fishman has been fighting to bring a needle-exchange program to Florida that might have saved her son's life. Last week, Fishman told lawmakers about her son's death and her husband's legacy. After being tied up in legislative red tape for the past three sessions, a bill called the Infectious Disease Elimination Act (IDEA), which would legalize and create a framework for a needle-exchange program, passed its last committee unanimously. It is up for vote in the Florida Senate tomorrow.

“There's still a lot of work to be done in Florida,” Fishman says. “But we're doing it.”

Fishman, now in her 60s, splits her time between New York and South Florida. She is a vocal harm-reduction advocate and believes a needle exchange would drastically halt the spread of infections, route drug users into rehab, and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Fishman says that if the bill passes, she will help equip the program with Narcan. “I would absolutely insist upon it,” Fishman says.

Critics say that giving away needles enables and encourages drug use. But drug use is already rampant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that heroin use increased significantly across all demographics after Florida's pill mills shuttered in 2011. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 15 heroin-related deaths in Miami in 2011. By 2014, that number had soared to 60. There are an estimated 10,500 intravenous drug users in Miami-Dade.

Even more startling is that these users are at high risk of contracting HIV; it's estimated that one-third of all HIV cases are acquired by injecting drugs. Statistics for 2014 from the Department of Health show there were 26,445 people living with HIV/AIDS in Miami-Dade and 17,214 in Broward.

For the past three legislative sessions, medical professionals including Dr. Hansel Tookes, a resident specializing in infectious diseases, have been working with state legislators to try to pass a bill that would establish a needle-exchange program. Earlier versions of the bill specified that it would have been run through Florida's Department of Health, but the current bill would establish the program instead through University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, adjacent to Jackson Hospital. It would be privately funded. There are 194 programs in the country, but this would create the first one in Florida.

“I am so thankful for Ms. Fishman's courage to share the story of the tragic loss of her son to overdose,” Tookes says. “It is our hope that with the passage of IDEA, we will be able to prevent other mothers from suffering the same pain.”

“I know Ms. Fishman is very active on a lot of issues involving harm reduction,” says Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “She feels strongly that policymakers should reduce the harm from drugs but also the war on drugs.”

Currently, Florida law permits medical professions to prescribe nalaxone to people at risk of an opiod overdose and for emergency responders to administer them. But Fishman hopes to eventually make her husband's medicine over-the-counter and even more available. A needle exchange would be the first step.

In the meantime, Fishman carries Narcan in her purse. “It's on me at all times,” Fishman says. “If I see someone overdosing, I can run over and boom, save a life.”

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