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Host: Scott LaMar

Opioid Addiction Causes Headaches for First Responders

Written by Rich Copeland - Producer, WITF's Smart Talk | Apr 17, 2017 1:02 PM
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photo: LancasterOnline

The current opioid abuse epidemic taking place in Central Pennsylvania is creating onerous burdens for emergency medical responders in the region.  York County Coroner Pam Gay joined WITF's Smart Talk to discuss the pressures heroin overdoses are creating for her office:

"By the end of February, we already had thirty suspected heroin deaths . . . we had seventy-six all of last year."

She noted that the city of Lancaster has seen 50 heroin overdose deaths this year.  Gay explained why there has been such an explosion in heroin abuse:

"This problem didn't happen overnight - this was largely connected to the prescription drug problem . . . which was ten to fifteen years in the making.  We've created a society, unfortunately, that was using these drugs that were originally intended for end of life care and so what's happening is there were more restrictions being put on those drugs . . . and also the price going up.  People reverted to heroin, it was just less expensive and more easily available."

Gay said  that the additive fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, started getting mixed into heroin in 2015:  "Now we see fentanyl in almost all of our heroin-related deaths."

The addition of fentanyl has made treating overdose victims more difficult.  Andrew Gilger is the Performance Improvement Lieutenant and a paramedic with Lancaster Emergency Medical Services and he spoke about the challenges of treating overdoses involving fentanyl:

"There are patients that we don't have enough Narcan in the bag to get them up and functioning again, or even get them breathing adequately again.  We have to go to managing their airway, breathing for them on the way to the hospital even though we're giving them these drugs to try and reverse the narcotics."

Narcan is the drug used to revive users from heroin overdoses.  It has proven to be successful in saving lives, but it isn't always effective.  Gilger described the unintended consequences of Narcan use:

"The Narcan will work if they still have a pulse, if they are still breathing a bit.  If they've already gone into cardiac arrest, you can dump as much Narcan as you want into them and it's not going to change it."

Responding to these overdoses is placing pressure on first responders.  Gilger spoke to the stress created by opioid abuse on paramedics:

"It does take its toll - it takes its toll on providers going out, day after day, for the same people.  It was four percent of our call volume last year and we ran over twenty thousand 911 calls in Lancaster County . . . and the amount of effort, the amount of doses that we're giving, the amount that it costs . . . it's almost unfathomable some days."

Gay recognizes the frustrations of responding to these overdoses, but she says until we stop treating them as crimes, there will be no progress in treatment:

"It's a disease.  You have to accept that.  If you don't accept it as a disease, you can't understand."

Published in News, Smart Talk

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