Overdoses and Junkies


We’ve all been there… Toned out for another “unresponsive/unknown” call, and arrive on-scene to find a known “junkie” has “overdosed”…again. But, is this really an overdose? Or was it the patient’s intended dose, and now they are suffering the consequences of their drug of choice? I currently work in Texas, but I got my career in EMS started in the Northern Kentucky / Ohio River Valley, where heroin use and abuse is rampant. It’s so common that any unresponsive person under 50 got Narcan intranasal right away – sometimes even before getting a full set of vitals. It became almost routine to be called to the same house multiple times in a week for the same patient not breathing because of their abuse of opiates.

It got old. It was repetitive. It was demoralizing to “save” the same person multiple times in a week, seeing the old hospital bracelets and gauze from your own IV sticks, knowing full well that you would be seeing them again soon. “Saving them to die another day” is what we used to say. Not that I was bitter, I was just exhausted by the constant barrage of overdoses. I hated hearing other calls go out while I was working an overdose. I would think to myself “does that other call deserve my attention more than this so-called junkie?” This continued for years as the heroin use increased, the cost of the drug dropped, and EMS response times improved – all leading to more people overdosing, and then being brought back to life again. I got more and more frustrated, grouping all of these people together as one anonymous, drug-addicted, resource-draining class.

But then, I had a truly unique, moving, emotional experience. While at a gas pump, a former overdose patient (who I recognized but did not acknowledge until she approached me) recognized me as the medic who ran her call. She approached me and her exact words were “I was basically dead, and when I woke up again, your face was the first thing I saw and I’ve never forgotten it.”) She went on to tell me that she hasn’t touched any drugs of any kind since her OD about 6 months ago. It was a life-changing experience for her, but at the time, it was “just another heroin OD” for me. We often talk about being in the right place at the right time, and hoping to make a positive impact, but a lot of the time, certain types of calls can begin to wear even the most optimistic medic down. I feel truly honored to have bumped into this former patient, and I’m glad that I was able to help her in the brief hour or so I spent with her several months ago. I will certainly carry this interaction with me for years – it has forever changed how I feel about these types of calls.
How do you feel about drug use and abuse? Do you see a lot of these calls? Is there something more than EMS providers can be doing other than reversing the effects and transporting the patient? If we see patients multiple times, does your service offer a Mobile Integrated Health or Mobile Paramedicine program that can intervene? Are you tired of running these calls? How do you keep your spirits up, how do you make sure that even if you get frustrated, your next patient still receives the best EMS care possible? Do you have other types of calls that you seem to run “all the time”? I’d love to hear all of your comments and thoughts – leave them below!

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