First Responders Discuss Ups And Downs Of Narcan

By Victoria Kim 08/04/17

“We’re saving lives, but we’re seeing these people again and again. There has to be a better way.”

Paramedic medical team driving in emergency response vehicle

Narcan is now a staple in the tool belts of emergency medical services workers in Pennsylvania. The drug also known as naloxone is hailed by harm reduction advocates as a life-saving tool that can revive a person who is overdosing on opioids.

Some EMS workers say it’s easy to get "jaded" on the job. They say that seeing the same people overdose repeatedly is taxing, both mentally and financially. “I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” says Rick Adobato, chief of Fayette County EMS in western PA. “We’re saving lives, but we’re seeing these people again and again. There has to be a better way.”

Adobato, who says they use Narcan like it’s “candy,” told that first responders have “inadvertently become enablers.” Others agree.

“There are days I find myself thinking [we’re enabling them],” says Steve Zawisky, senior prosecutor in Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office. “But my overall attitude is let’s try to get these people into recovery.”

“Literally, within hours they are back to using heroin, and there is nothing we can do about it,” said Zawisky.

Some Pennsylvania counties have adopted a new approach—the warm handoff. An overdose patient in the emergency room is given the option to enter treatment immediately. In York County, 30% of overdose patients brought to the ER have entered treatment.

Towns and cities elsewhere in the United States are trying out their own initiatives. In Colerain, Ohio, “Rapid Response Teams” visit the homes of overdose patients. The Fix spoke with Shana Merrick, a social worker with Addiction Services Council, for the January article, "What’s Next After Naloxone?

“We knock on doors and ask to speak with either the person who overdosed or any friends or family,” she said. “We explain that we are not there to make an arrest, but to offer resources to keep the person healthy, safe and well. Most people open their doors and we talk about their situations and needs.”

Merrick, who has been with the Rapid Response Team since the beginning, says about 80% of people they visit “eventually seek some form of treatment.” 

She adds: “It’s not always right away, but if we build a relationship over time then they may contact us later on asking for help.”

Similar programs exist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Boston area in Massachusetts.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr