This is What Saving Lives from Opioid Overdose Looks Like

By Tessie Castillo 08/06/18

"People live in helpless situations and I know they are stuck in a place where they don’t want to be. I understand because that used to be me."

Jessie Garner sitting on car trunk full of items to help people addicted to opioids
Jessie Garner has dedicated his life to helping people with opioid addictions.

It was a cold December day when Jessie Garner happened upon a man lying facedown in the woods. The man was motionless and cold to the touch, but Jessie could feel a faint pulse in his wrist. Quickly, Jessie removed a vial of Narcan nasal spray (the drug used to reverse opioid overdose) from his duffel bag and sprayed the contents up the man’s nose. Almost immediately the man regained consciousness. He started babbling, pointing to a makeshift tent nearby. Jessie ran into the tent and saw a second, younger man lying motionless and blue. Jessie sprayed Narcan up his nose too, but this man did not respond right away. It took five more vials of Narcan and several nail-biting minutes before the color returned his face and he could sit up. He started crying and hugging Jessie, thanking him for saving his life. It was just another day of outreach for Jessie Garner.

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Jessie Garner began working for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition as an outreach specialist in 2016. A former heroin user and incarcerated person, he understands the struggles of people who use drugs. Under a grant from the Aetna Foundation to combat opioid overdose in rural communities, Jessie visits the homes of people struggling with drug addiction and homelessness in Cumberland County, North Carolina. He offers them Narcan, sterile syringes, referrals to treatment and recovery programs, and other resources that can prevent disease, save lives, and help them get back on their feet. His efforts have saved many lives, but Jessie sees it as all in a day’s work.

“I was just doing my job,” he says, when asked how he felt about reviving the two men in the woods last December. “I didn’t really think about much beyond that.”

In May 2018 I accompanied Jessie on street outreach while he visited several regular participants who use drugs. Our first stop is to see Amanda, a young heroin user whom Jessie has been visiting for over a year. As soon as we pull up the car with supplies in the trunk, a dark haired woman runs up to the driver’s side window.

“Jessie, I got on methadone!” she bursts out.

Jessie’s face breaks into a smile as he steps out of the car and gives her a hug. “For real, baby? How long?”

“Two weeks,” she says, grinning. “I’m doing really good. I feel great. Haven’t felt this good in a long time.”

“I can see that. You look good. You’ve gained some weight,” says Jessie. He opens the trunk of the car. “Need anything?”

Amanda takes some free condoms and alcohol wipes as she continues to update Jessie on her treatment progress. At the methadone clinic, she receives a dose of methadone that relieves her cravings for heroin. The dose enables her to live without the need to search for heroin or suffer withdrawal. As we stand around the car, chatting, a few of her neighbors come up to collect Narcan, syringes, condoms, and other supplies. They all congratulate Amanda on starting treatment. She can’t stop smiling. Before we leave, she gives Jessie another quick hug.

“Thanks, man. Couldn’t have done it without you.”

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Jessie waves away the praise as we get back in the car. “Just doing my job,” he says.

At our next stop we pull up to a brick apartment building with dark curtains covering the windows. Jessie knocks on one door and a woman wrapped in a sheet answers it. Stepping out of a darkened room, she blinks against the daylight.

“I have a client,” she says. “Come back later.”

Jessie knocks on the next door and a shirtless man opens it. His apartment is also dark. He says he doesn’t want any supplies, assuring us that he “doesn’t do that stuff,” but he seems to know a lot of people who do. For the next several minutes Jessie inquires into the whereabouts of several of his regular outreach participants. According to the man, one participant recently had her arm amputated and another is in critical condition at the hospital. Both situations were caused by using infected syringes to inject drugs. Jessie takes down information on the hospital room for one of the participants and thanks the man. We move on to the next stop.

Over the next few hours, we visit people in homes, parking lots, motels, and street corners. Jessie asks how they are doing and peppers them with questions about other participants he hasn’t seen in a while. Everyone has news. Some of it is uplifting: “So-and-so got into treatment” or “so-and-so got her own apartment.” Other times the news is sobering: “He’s in jail,” “they are homeless now,” or “I haven’t heard from her in a while,” followed by a long pause as everyone contemplates what that might mean.

It’s apparent that Jessie cares about his participants and is concerned about their well-being. Back in the car, he mentions that it’s really hard to watch people deteriorate over time.

“Entire neighborhoods are falling into extreme poverty,” he says. I ask him what motivates him to do such emotionally grueling work. He ponders the question for a minute before answering.

“People live in helpless situations and I know they are stuck in a place where they don’t want to be,” he says. “I understand because that used to be me. When I was going through [addiction] there was no one there to help me. I want to be the external help that keeps people as well as possible.”

As night falls, I ask Jessie a final question: Who is his greatest success story? This seems to cheer Jessie up. “Betty,” he says. “Betty was a sex worker and an active drug user. We got her into the LEAD [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion] program [through the Fayetteville Police Department in Cumberland County]. She had lived in a motel for eight years and we were able to get her an apartment and a job at a gas station so she didn’t have to do sex work. She also started methadone treatment. One day she called me crying because she was so happy to have been able to pay the rent herself and have her name on the receipt.”

He smiled as he spoke and I left him with his happy thoughts as we drove to the next stop to see what news it would bring.

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Tessie Castillo is a writer and drug policy advocate in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her articles explore topics such as criminal justice reform, drug policy, and harm reduction. Castillo previously served as the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a statewide nonprofit that advances drug policy and criminal justice reform. During that time, she played a pivotal role in helping to legalize syringe exchange programs and expand access to naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose. Find Tessie at her website or on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.