Through the doorway I heard the sound of a woman screaming. I ran inside, breathing through my mouth to keep from gagging on the stench that permeated the apartment. In the living room, on a soiled couch, lay a young man with a purple face, unblinking eyes and a chest that neither rose nor fell.
Fortunately, my partner and I had arrived a mere second ahead of the paramedics who quickly shoved us aside. They opened their medical kits while having a muted conversation. I picked up the words, “Already dead,” and “Let’s try it anyway.” Then one of them pulled out a large needle and shoved it into the dead young man.
About five seconds later, the purple-faced Lazarus sprang to life. He got off the couch and, with minimal prompting, began walking (and vomiting) towards the waiting ambulance.
That was fifteen years ago. Black tar heroin usage was rampant and graphic overdose scenes, much like this one, were all too common. The use of the drug narcan (or naloxone) was widely used at the time to reverse the respiratory depression that could be a fatal effect of an opioid overdose. The cycle seemed to reverse over the years, as drug usage shifted from heroin to prescription opioids such as oxycodone. Drug companies have been forced to re-engineer these drugs in order to thwart addicts who typically smoke or inject the pills.
The so-called war on drugs rages on, and overdose deaths from street opioids are on the rise, as an AP article in Sunday’s Trib related. The story highlighted the controversial decision, by public health officials across the nation, to disperse naloxone injections not only to police officers and firefighters, but to addicts and their family members as well. Despite controversy, officials estimate the giveaway has saved more than 10,000 lives since 1996.
That was the year that public health officials from Chicago first gave away naxolone. It was also the same year that I responded to the incident mentioned above. Unfortunately, that was not the only heroin overdose I came across during that period of time.
During much of the ’90s downtown Tacoma was known for having one of the region’s largest outdoor heroin markets. Drug dealers set up shop in the area of South Commerce and 15th Street, operating out of homeless shelters and in large crowds on the street. The needle exchange van made routine passes through the area. Syringes, many still coated with the brownish residue from recent heroin injection, were left in doorways, on the sidewalk and in the gutter.
I was assigned to the police bike unit for some of this period. Because drug transactions were so prevalent, a two person team could rack up literally hundreds of felony arrests in less than a year’s time. We had a friendly working relationship with the regulars on the street, the drug users who spent much of their time roaming through the crowd of buyers and sellers. This made arrests easier – it made dealing with overdoses very difficult.
On one occasion my partner and I were riding on a street commonly used as a “shooting gallery,” or area frequented by drug users. I noticed a vehicle parked on the street, its driver’s window down and a pale hand dangling limply out of it. We pulled up and immediately recognized the young woman as one of our regulars. The needle was still in her arm. We called for medics and pulled out our CPR kit.
It is impossible to say whether or not an immediate naxolone injection (now available as a nasal spray) would have saved her. I only wish I had a better option as I watched this young woman’s life slip away. Experiences such as this suggest that the estimated 10,000 overdose deaths – deaths prevented by the free dispersal of naxolone – were not an exxageration.
Drug dealing is still a felony crime. So is possession, though to a lesser extent. That fact in no way diminishes our responsibility to protect and preserve the health of people caught in the deadly grip of drug addiction. Whether these people are family members, friends or random individuals, their self-destructive choices do not make them somehow unworthy of our help.
Providing potential life-saving medication, whether to a sober person or drug addict, can only be a noble act. Nobility is not the result of merely allowing someone another opportunity for life, but by providing yet one more chance to free themselves from a drug that keeps them from living.