For Some, Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Needle Exchange Program Is a Lifeline
Editor’s Note: Like all needle exchange programs in West Virginia, a program operated by the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department is on uncertain ground given a new state law that tightens the operation of and access to such efforts to contain diseases spread by intravenous drug use. Politicians and healthcare providers have had much to say, pro and con. Below is a glimpse into the world of a woman dealing with IV drug addiction and trying to stay alive.
WHEELING — Amy Smith could be any other midlife woman in the city. Shortish red hair, dark-framed glasses, a pink T-shirt whose neckline is accented with a corded necklace, a bit of sunburn on her legs.
But, she isn’t.
Smith (not her real name) is addicted to street drugs. And, until going clean this winter after a health crisis, she was using the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department’s needle-exchange program.
Her participation was initially about cost, she said. Street drugs are pricey. Needles are, too. Her first packet — which she used to inject methamphetamine 10 to 20 times a week — came from a diabetic acquaintance.
When those ran out, she turned to the needle exchange. “You had to turn in 10 to get 10. If you had eight, you got eight. No extras.”
Engaging in that kind of economy soon also became about keeping an already tough life from getting even tougher, she said. Smith fears needle-borne exposure to HIV. She has already contracted hepatitis C through sharing needles and will begin treatment this summer.
“That scares me. I know someone who had it and didn’t get treated and died,” Smith said during a May interview at Laughlin Memorial Chapel.
She and a small group of other women living on the paper-thin edges of Wheeling society were there for a weekly respite from street life called Blossoms.
Such programs have been a lifeline for Smith, who had a heart attack and pneumonia in early winter and made the decision to go clean.
“I’m alive. I was half dead,” she said of this time of transition.
That difference matters to Smith, 46, even though she danced with death — smoking, snorting or injecting drugs like meth and crack cocaine — on and off for 25 years.
“My daughter is having my first grandbaby — it’s a girl,” said Smith, who has three adult children in her home state of Mississippi. “I’d always told them to wait until I’m at least 50 to make me a grandmother. But, I’ve been asking them about it recently. I said, ‘I’m 50 if you round it off.'”
Smith was planning a bus trip and a month-long stay to see her first grandchild. But, she said she intends to return to Wheeling — even though the apartment she has been staying in for the last three months will no longer be available and she will likely return to the streets.
“I love it here. It’s beautiful. The people are nice. This is home for me,” Smith said of choosing the Mountain State regardless of her precarious residency.
She came here eight years ago to be with a man she met on the internet.
“I was clean when I moved up here, but the guy that I was with was a drug addict. He kept it undercover for a while, but that’s what he was. I started smoking crack again.”
Three or four years ago, she switched to meth. “I smoked it. I snorted it. Then, I started injecting it. I liked the injecting better than I did the smoking and snorting because of the rush.”
That guy is gone from her life, but she remained in Wheeling throughout it all.
“I’ve been in apartments. I’ve been homeless. I’m homeless now, but I’m living with somebody. I still consider myself homeless, but I’m in a home. I’m not sleeping on the streets.”
Street life isn’t easy, she noted, especially for someone battling drug addiction.
“I’ve seen people take needles off the ground outside and use them. I haven’t done that, but I’ve seen it done.” Other times, people share needles. She has done this. Or, they try to clean needles that have already been used.
Knowing that disease-free needles are available was a relief — although she hopes to never need them again.
“It’s like they don’t judge you. They don’t belittle you or anything,” she said of the exchange. “It needs to be there because; people that are using, they’re going to keep on using.”
She doesn’t want to be one of them. One leg jiggles just talking about it. But, she said that “want to” is what it takes.
“I can do it by myself,” she said of her access to drug rehab running out after a single week. “You’ve got to want to get off drugs and I want to get off drugs.
“People don’t understand,” Smith said of succumbing to drugs in the first place and now struggling to get free. “Don’t judge me. God can only judge me. Don’t judge someone, because you’ve never been in their shoes.”