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Paramedics, Cops, Doctors On Front Lines of Drug War

Fire department paramedics have looked death in the eyes more times than they can count. Then life comes rushing back into the addict’s body. The Narcan worked, this time.

For first responders who are on the front lines of the drug overdose epidemic in the Ohio Valley, all the training in the world cannot prepare them for so many lives — young and old — being lost to heroin addiction. A week ago, Wheeling Fire Department paramedics handled four overdose calls, two of which were fatal, in a 13-hour period. Two days later, three more overdose cases occurred.

If the paramedics get to OD victims soon enough, the life-saving Narcan drug can restore breathing and literally put life back into a nearly lifeless body. When drug users overdose on opioids, their breathing becomes so shallow that eventually they die. Narcan can and will save lives, sometimes the same lives over and over again.

Assistant Chief Jim Blazier, training officer with the Wheeling Fire Department, said the recent heroin-related deaths in Wheeling were most likely caused by the same batch of the illegal drug. He said dealers often “cut” the heroin with other more powerful substances that addicts are not accustomed to using.

“Someone who has been clean and just out of rehab or jail might go back to using the same way but the drug is different, more powerful. They have no tolerance anymore and they overdose,” Blazier said.

He said the department deals with many people suffering from a variety of addictions, not only drugs but also alcoholism, compounded health problems from smoking, alcohol and overeating. He praised city leaders for recognizing the fire department’s staffing and equipment needs, especially for handling medical emergencies. The fire department operates three ambulances citywide.

Engineer/Paramedic Tom Haluscak said the drug epidemic and increasing number of overdose cases have kept the city fire department ambulances busy, especially in recent days. He said fire personnel are trained in administering Narcan to drug users in a way that eases the withdrawal.

“You have to be trained not to give all the Narcan quickly, but as easily and slowly as you can. The trouble is the public has Narcan and needs to be educated on how to administer it, “ Haluscak said.

While the care of their patients is paramount, Haluscak said the safety of the paramedics and EMTs is also vital.

“The No. 1 thing we talk about in the fire service is our safety. If we can’t be safe, we can’t take care of anybody else.”

First responders always wear gloves but also many don safety glasses and masks to avoid contact with blood-borne illnesses, saliva and other possible contaminants. He noted there is always the risk of a needle stick when an addict doesn’t disclose the whereabouts of used needles.

“Our concern is the safety of the public. We’re not the police but we interrogate the addicts to find out where they disposed of their needles. The last thing we want is a kid to come across a needle. We can’t arrest anyone. We want to protect life,” Haluscak commented.

When asked how the drug epidemic has affected the fire department personnel, firefighters said they deal with life and death situations everyday, but sometimes it hits close to home.

“It wears on you, saddens you, breaks you down. There’s no boundaries to drug abuse. You can be poor, wealthy, it doesn’t matter, it can get into the hands of anybody,” Haluscak said. “There’s no good family interaction any more. I don’t blame parents. They’re always working. Technically we bury ourselves in our phones and outside things. We don’t look inside ourselves and families. When you don’t have that interaction among family members, people get disassociated. It’s a little drop of mud in the water until it gets too murky and you can’t clean it up anymore,” he added.

Haluscak said firefighters work long hours and have a close family relationship. “We sit around this kitchen table and eat lunch and dinner together. I know when someone’s having a bad day. We talk to each other.”

Wheeling Public Information Officer Philip Stahl said the recent rise in overdose calls is concerning for police and fire department personnel.

Stahl said Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger “is taking it upon himself to attend drug education seminars and conferences, because this problem isn’t going away any time soon.”

The use of illegal drugs and the subsequent overdoses are being felt throughout the state, with West Virginia ranking first in the country for opioid overdoses and deaths. Officials said drug dealers are mixing heroin with other powerful substances including fentanyl.

Stahl said some fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin making it very dangerous for the officers and paramedics. They have to wear gloves and masks when investigating drug cases.

Ask first responders, ER doctors and nurses and they will tell you that all overdose victims are not thankful for their life-saving efforts. Often, those trying to help the addicts are victims of violent outbursts as the patients saved by the Narcan are put into immediate withdrawal. The “coming down” is more like a steep and sudden crash, and it hurts, doctors said.

Dr. Chad Anderson, an emergency room physician for the past eight years at Wheeling Hospital’s Emergency-Trauma Center, said drug overdose patients are not unusual in the ER.

“It’s just part of daily life anymore. I think a lot of times it’s just commonplace … certainly it’s more prevalent than when I started here,” Anderson said.

However, unless a person is found with a needle in his or her arm, Anderson said the medical staff runs through a host of standard evaluations to see if there is more than drugs involved.

“Technically we evaluate based on examining their breathing, their pupils. Once we determine it is a drug overdose, we administer Narcan,” Anderson said. “Often there is polysubstance abuse involved.”

Polysubstance abuse refers to the use of multiple drugs to enhance the effect of one drug for a more intense high.

When an addict is saved with Narcan, he or she is sent immediately into withdrawal. And some patients wake up angry at losing their high.

“Certainly they are anxious but it’s better than the alternative,” Anderson said.

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