John Wanat will never forget what he saw twice in the same night at the same house: two opioid overdoses that nearly ended in two deaths.
The Cheektowaga police sergeant had responded to overdose calls before to save lives. But this was different.
He and Sgt. Jeffrey Schmidt arrived at the Edmund Street home on a Saturday night last year in response to a 911 call of an “unresponsive male.” The man’s girlfriend and two other companions said he had collapsed on the bedroom floor after injecting himself with heroin.
The sergeants administered a dose of the opiate antidote Narcan. The man regained consciousness and before being transported to a hospital for observation, he thanked police for saving his life. The man explained that he had been drug-free until a recent relapse.
Police asked the others in the home if there was any more heroin around. They all said no.
Fifteen minutes after Wanat and Schmidt left, they were summoned back to the house. The girlfriend had overdosed.
“We thought, ‘Not again,’ and sure enough it was. We were told that she shot up some heroin because she was so upset her boyfriend had overdosed. I think she used that as an excuse for her addiction. The addiction is so compelling. She wouldn’t give up her lethal stash, even when we had told her, ‘Look, this stuff will kill you,’ ” Wanat said.
Under the state’s Good Samaritan law, the officers were not looking to make arrests.
“We were there to help,” he said.
It took two doses of Narcan from Officer Sean Trapper to revive the 25-year-old woman, who also was taken to Erie County Medical Center for observation.
Epidemic takes its toll
These are trying times for police, firefighters and medical first responders. Hardly a day goes by when they are not responding to an opioid overdose. More lives are saved than lost, but there is an emotional toll for those on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.
“We rely on our partners and coworkers to help us relieve the stress,” Wanat said. “This is what we signed up for, and it’s what we do. We can open the doors, but we can’t keep them there. Ultimately, the change has to be made by the user.”
In Buffalo, police on average are administering 40 to 50 Narcan doses each month. Buffalo firefighters are administering 50 to 70 per month. If the pace keeps up, that works out to a combined 1080 to 1440 for the year.
Last year, city police and firefighters combined administered 850 doses of the life-saving antidote.
The work of the region’s first responders has not gone unnoticed.
The Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force on Wednesday will honor them for the hundreds of lives they have saved with Narcan – also known as naloxone. The event coincides with International Overdose Awareness Day.
“To decrease the number of Erie County accidental opioid overdose deaths, training first responders to recognize a suspected overdose and administer naloxone has been a priority,” County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said. “The increased availability of naloxone for first responders has significantly contributed to decreasing the volume of opioid overdose deaths, giving many individuals another chance to fight their addiction.”
Deadly bootleg drug hitting WNY
Yet overdoes continue. One reason is that a cheaper, bootleg version of the super-potent opioid fentanyl is making its way onto the streets of Western New York. Just four or five grains of the drug can kill.
Health and law enforcement officials say fentanyl has filled a void ever since the state’s I-STOP law halted the flow of prescription painkillers into the hands of drug pushers. Investigators have traced the fentanyl to Chinese laboratories. The opioid is then smuggled into the United States, and it costs less than heroin.
By year’s end, the county Health Department projects 400 deaths from the epidemic.
Cheektowaga police began carrying Narcan in June 2014, and Wanat says officers have administered the antidote 120 times – 50 times so far this year.
“We have saved 120 lives. Had it not been for the Narcan, those lives would have been taken by the drugs,” he said.
And responding to an overdose requires more than just administering Narcan, according to the sergeant.
“We try to educate and counsel the family members as well, not just the users, on how dangerous these drugs are. Mothers and fathers truly don’t understand how grave of a crisis this is,” Wanat said. “There is no perfect system, and all we can ask is that these people try and try and try to get help.”
Too often, the help is rejected.
A year and a month after the two separate overdoses of the boyfriend and girlfriend on Edmund Street, Cheektowaga police received a call March 25 this year from police in Secaucus, N.J., requesting help in notifying next of kin. It was for the young man Cheektowaga police had saved that night on Edmund Street.
“He had been found dead of a drug overdose in a hotel room in Secaucus,” Wanat said. “I don’t even think he counts in our local statistics, but he was somebody from here who was lost in this crisis.”