PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Heroin addiction has become a national epidemic and fatal overdoses have claimed the lives of thousands right here in southwestern Pennsylvania.
But now a life-saving drug called Narcan has become readily available and is bringing dying addicts back from death’s door.
Driving down Brownsville Road, Valerie didn’t know her husband, Bill, had shot up heroin, but when she saw his lips turn blue and his eye roll back in his head, she pulled into a parking lot and called 911.
“The fire company got there and they came and they said they want to try this new stuff and it was Narcan,” she said.
It’s called Narcan, and when sprayed up a person’s nostrils, it counteracts the deadening effects of opioids like heroin.
Bill had stopped breathing, and his pulse was rapid and weak. But after firefighters administered Narcan, he sprung back to life.
“I’d be dead today if the firemen didn’t have that Narcan,” he said.
During this epidemic in heroin use, Narcan has become a life-saver. Pittsburgh is now responding to an average of 15 potentially fatal overdoses a week.
And so far this year, they’ve administered Narcan 759 times, and in 683 — or 90 percent — of those cases, the patient awoke from the overdose.
And the results have been the same in counties and towns across the region. In Plum, paramedics and firefighters have saved or reversed half a dozen people who would have died.
“To give someone the opportunity to get treatment or the chance to better themselves…” Capt. Dan Fitzhenry with Unity VFD said. “I’m glad I have he opportunity to do that.”
Until recently, Narcan could only be dispensed by a medical professional, like a physician or paramedic, but a new state law makes it available to firefighters, police and the family members of addicts.
All of that means that more and more addicts are being saved, but what they do with their second chance is up to them — something that sometimes frustrates first responders.
“I can’t kidnap someone to go to the hospital,” Dr. Neil Capretto said. “They sign the paper, they leave and a week later, I’m seeing them again. So it’s definitely a double edged sword.”
But Capretto, one the driving forces behind making Narcan more available, says most of the addicts try to get clean after being saved by the drug.
“I see people on a daily basis who have come into treatment because they were reversed by this drug and that has served as a wake up call to come into treatment,” he said.”
And that’s what happened to Bill. He woke up and said, “I need to go to rehab.” He’s been in treatment and has been clean since — one day at a time.
“Whatever I have to do,” he said. “I don’t want my son growing up and saying, ‘My father’s junkie’ or ‘he died of an overdose.’ He deserves so much more then that.”
“We need him,” Valerie said. “Me and my son need him. We love him. We can’t go on without him.”