Former addicts thank emergency responders for second chances
Naloxone administrations by the state's emergency responders declined last year after peaking at more than 50,000 in 2017
Doug Caruso, Rita Price
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When firefighters last revived him, administering the doses of naloxone that would once again save him from death by opioid overdose, Matt Wilson didn't have much of a life to return to.
He was sick, alienated from his family and fully unemployable. He sometimes slept on a bench in Westgate Park.
Wilson pointed to that bench Sunday afternoon as he stood on a stage in the same West Side park and told the rest of the story. He aimed his most heartfelt words at two men whose hats identified them as firefighters from Columbus Station 17 on the Hilltop, which serves some of the city's most drug-ravaged neighborhoods.
"You guys see a lot of bad things," Wilson said. "You don't get to see what can happen next."
The 30-year-old West Side resident was among a handful of speakers at a gathering organized by the Desert Island Club, a local social organization for people in recovery, to kick off National EMS Appreciation Week.
Wilson and others wanted to thank the men and women who gave them a second — or third or fourth or seventh — chance to break free from addiction. Ohio emergency responders administer the opioid overdose antidote naloxone tens of thousands of times a year, with some of the state's highest rates occurring on the West Side of Columbus.
In the 43222 ZIP code that covers Franklinton, for example, state data shows that emergency medical personnel administered about one dose of naloxone in 2018 for every 18 people who live there. Just to the west in the 43223 ZIP code on the Hilltop, it was one dose for every 57 people.
As dismal as those numbers are, "Nobody recovers that's dead," said John Gerlach, 49, of the West Side. "I myself was the recipient of a nice electric shock and naloxone in 2010. EMS came and saved me, and if I hadn't made it that day, I wouldn't have made it to get sober."
Gerlach and other organizers said Sunday's celebration wasn't just about showing gratitude. They also wanted to help first responders, who might suffer from compassion fatigue at times, see that some people do get better. Gerlach has helped several people in recovery obtain their EMS reports so that they can find out who saved their lives.
"The EMS have been dispatched to my house more times than I can count," said Mark Smelser, 33, who lives on the South Side. "And you've responded multiple times. Multiple times. You allowed me to dive head first into recovery."
Though the work can be both heart-wrenching and frustrating, emergency responders are committed to doing everything it takes to help more people recover, said Lt. Matthew Parrish of the Columbus Division of Fire EMS bureau.
"The rule for EMS on the street is, you're giving someone a chance at life," said Parrish, one of several EMS personnel who attended the celebration. "Everyone deserves that."
Naloxone administrations by the state's emergency responders declined last year after peaking at more than 50,000 in 2017. But Parrish and others say it's not necessarily because overdoses are dropping by a similar margin. State data only counts naloxone given by EMS, and in the past few years, naloxone use by the public has become more widespread.
The medication is available in stores and through local health departments.
Parrish said emergency responders always feel good about saving lives. When frustration creeps in, it's largely because they "only see one end of it. We might be with someone for just five or 10 minutes," he said. They snatch addicts from the brink of death and wish for the best, but usually don't get to see good results, which might not take root for years.
"You just keep doing it and hoping," said Columbus firefighter Mitchell Beard of Station 17.
He and firefighter John Wisenbarger were there Sunday to meet Wilson, who wanted them to know what happened after they saved his life. Wilson finally got into recovery, has a good union job and the love of friends and family.
"This was our first time seeing this end of it," Wisenbarger said. "It was great to see a true recovery."
Naloxone administered by EMSEmergency medical responders in Ohio administered thousands of doses of naloxone to save people overdosing on opioids in 2018. The map shows doses per 1,000 people in Ohio counties. Hover on a county to see its numbers.
Sources: Ohio Emergency Medical Services, U.S. Census 2018 population estimatesDoug Caruso|The Columbus Dispatch
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