On the nights when David Huston is on duty, he waits for a signal to tell him that things have gone wrong.
He preps the ambulance, finishes paperwork … and he waits. He waits for the alarm that tells him that someone is on the verge of life and death.
He is waiting for his overdose call.
“Overdoses are often dispatched out as an unconscious [person], so you know something’s gone wrong,” said Huston, a Ball State junior who volunteers for Albany EMS.
The people addicted to these drugs, most often heroin or other opioids, are normal people, making it through each day, Huston said. They are people who feel and hope.
Paramedics and EMTs like David Huston find them at their lowest point, addicted and overdosed, but it is their job to save them.
Time is everything to the crew: both their ally and their enemy.
“It takes six minutes for the brain to start to die,” said Robin Smith, National Registered Advanced EMT for Albany EMS. “Once you have brain loss, it’s permanent. It doesn’t regenerate. After six minutes, there’s no going back. There’s no chance of ever being the person you were before.”
Naloxone, known informally as Narcan, is an EMT’s main defense while on a call regarding opioid overdose. Narcan, supplied on every ambulance, is a drug that prohibits opioid effects on the brain, completely ending the high and returning the patient back to consciousness.
“Narcan is a mute opioid receptor antagonist,” said Huston. “It prevents heroin or whatever opioid from binding to the ventilation receptors in the medulla oblongata [in the brain], which are responsible for the respiratory drive. It prevents heroin from stopping the lungs from breathing.”
In the past decade, the use of heroin and other painkilling drugs has spiked in communities like Albany, a small town of 2,165 in northern Delaware County.
“Four years ago, we never had an overdose call,” said Smith. “Then heroin started to pick up.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 1,245 Hoosiers died via drug overdose in 2015. Nationally, drug overdoses have risen by 200 percent since 2000.
Compared to 11 other Midwestern states, with data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Indiana ranked third for most fatalities connected to drug overdoses.
The issue of addiction in the Midwest is one that continues to affect more people every year. It is an issue that is unfolding in front of the world, but it is a world that many do not want to look at, said Spencer Sabinski, an EMT for Blackford County EMS.
“I don’t think that a lot of people understand how [addicts] live,” said Sabinski. “You go into a trailer that’s 10 years out of date and falling apart, and a person’s inside with a couple thousand dollars’ worth of drugs. That’s how they survive for years on end.
“This is a really small community that we’re in, like, an ‘everyone knows everyone’ kind of thing. The police don’t have the resources to deal with this. I think it’s a problem in rural communities especially.”
The issue of drugs and addiction is not a problem of law enforcement and medical care; instead, it’s a problem of community and personal ideology, Smith said.
“We’ve gotten to a point in our society that we have to [say], ‘It’s not your fault; it’s everyone else’s fault,’” said Smith. “Instead of holding everybody accountable for what they do or don’t do, we want to blame everybody else. I think that what is lacking is [personal] morals and values.”
The effects of addiction run deep in the communities where it is found. Not only does it affect the user, but it also impacts the men and women of the medical field who work to save them.
Smith continued with the divisiveness of drugs and addiction. When addicts are at their lowest moment in life, they are alone, Smith said.
“Every time you go in and somebody’s dead, I think, ‘They were alone when they died.’ ”
This story originally appeared in Facing Addiction in East Central Indiana, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Dr. Adam Kuban and the Louis E. Ingelhart Scholars at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.