Standing on the frontline of the opioid crisis

 

With no end in sight to the opioid crisis gripping our communities, a dark but inevitable question has arisen – should we eliminate the use of government-funded Narcan to revive overdose patients?

Born out of a sense of frustration and victimization at the hands of drug addicts, this concept seems to gaining support as society seems powerless to stop or even slow this epidemic, and the general public demands a better use of its tax revenue.

The moral question here between the sanctity of human life and the commodification of human life down to a budgetary line item is another debate for another time. However, planted firmly in the middle of these opposing viewpoints is a segment of our society more-suited than any to have an opinion on this matter, and that is first responders.

Every branch of emergency services, from 911 dispatchers who take calls involving their neighbors and friends, to Emergency Medical Services personnel, firefighters and police officers, deal with these individuals every time they report for work. The sheer volume of incidents that these professionals have had to deal with is beginning to take its toll, and the danger is that through utter burnout, overdose patients may suffer the fate some wish upon them unintentionally.

First responders have an acute sense of human compassion. However, not unlike combat soldiers, after so much exposure to human carnage, they develop a thousand-yard stare and their compassion may inevitably curdle into a calloused resentment toward those they’ve sworn to protect.

Anecdotally, I know of one crew that “banged” an overdose patient three times in a 24-hour period with Narcan, and revived the patient each time. The level of frustration begins to become unimaginable as this crew’s efforts were for naught, as this individual returned to death’s door again and again. Saving a human life is a profound experience, but the profundity is being lost because of its numbing frequency.

Because I was once a firefighter and emergency medical technician, I have been asked on numerous occasions for my opinion or philosophy regarding the use of Narcan, and without hesitation I say that my job was to save lives, period.

I was not trained to pronounce judgement on those I served. The opioid crisis, however, is a completely new landscape for first responders. At one time, it was not uncommon to spend your whole career without actually, verifiably, saving another human life.

But recently two captains in Washington’s fire department were honored for saving 21 patients between the two of them.

Legislation is being put forth to address the medical aspects of this crisis, but its results will not be felt soon. In the meantime, 126 people have died in Washington County as the result of drug overdoses this year, and every day that number climbs higher. But many others are saved by the efforts of first responders.

As this ceaseless battle rages, it will claim more and more victims, and will create new problems, such as the damage being done to first responders.

My hope is that when that day comes, there’s an antidote for them.

Manning is a Washington city councilman.

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