Reckoning with Addiction: The view with the EMS

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By John Iscore Essick

Henry County Emergency Medical Services (HCEMS) personnel are trained and prepared to assist in some of the most difficult and frightening moments of our lives.  

I rode along with HCEMS on three different occasions in recent months to hear their perspective on addiction in our county.

The number and intensity of overdose-related calls increased considerably in January 2017.  “We had so many so quick, all at once,” said HCEMS Director Paige Lucas.   

The sudden spike in overdose runs was due in part to the growing public attention on addressing the addiction crisis during that same period, but it is also true that increasingly powerful and dangerous drugs have been brought into Henry County in the last year.  

Overdose-related runs have declined some since early 2017, but emergency medical personnel continue to make overdose-related runs on a regular basis.  

Some addicts are seeking help.  

Other addicts, though, are using the medication Narcan to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.  

What this means, HCEMS says, is that “there are overdoses we don’t know about.”

HCEMS personnel are trained to make the right decision quickly and respond professionally in all circumstances, but overdoses are predictably unpredictable.  

“You never know what you’re going to encounter,” I was told on my first ride-along. 

One sunny afternoon we responded to a reported “seizure” in the vicinity of I-71.  

HCEMS soon discovered that it was an overdose situation but were unable to determine the exact nature of the overdose.  Was it intentional or accidental?  What type of drug was involved?  

In emergency situations the truth of what a patient has ingested, injected or consumed can be a matter of life and death.  

Yet the truth seems notoriously difficult to come by in an overdose situation.  

HCEMS personnel say that you “always want the best outcome for every run, but you can’t be naïve.”

911 overdose calls are often intentionally inaccurate or even false, leaving HCEMS to adjust their response and treatment based on emerging and sometimes vague information.  

Those who have overdosed may be unable or unwilling to admit what they’ve done.  

There is often an accompanying fear that law enforcement will get involved if the truth comes out.  

Family and friends who are present can be equally evasive.  

The shame, stigma, and denial of addiction make it more difficult for HCEMS personnel to do their job.  

It is difficult to “see folks at their worst,” they said, but they have also learned that judgmental behavior or language makes it less likely that addicts and those around them will open up and welcome help.

I also learned that HCEMS personnel are not always welcome at the scene of an overdose, even though they have been called to the location.  

Many people in the midst of an overdose, or just coming off a high, resist medical assistance.   

“We see them when they’re angry, not happy, not wanting help,” I was told.  

Patients experiencing overdose symptoms can become belligerent and hostile, avoiding the very help they so desperately need.

It was also obvious in my conversations with HCEMS that addiction is not a respecter of persons.  

“Addiction is not a class,” I was told, meaning that HCEMS is just as likely to be called to low-income public housing as they are to be called to the home of a wealthy family.  

There is no stereotypical addict. There is no place immune to the addiction crisis.

HCEMS is not the solution to our addiction crisis, but it is a critical part of the bridge that will get us there.  Thankfully, HCEMS personnel are ready to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

And if we look to them, they can mirror for us how we are doing and where the pain is.

When I asked one EMT why she chose this line of work, she said, “When I was younger I wanted to be president so I could change the world, but now I want to change the world for one.”  

HCEMS personnel are tasked with providing immediate professional medical assistance to those in an overdose crisis, but the long-term response and communal requirements to care for one another in the midst of this addiction crisis fall to all of us.



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Rev. Dr. John Inscore Essick is co-pastor of Port Royal Baptist Church and associate professor of Church History at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Georgetown. Feedback is welcomed by e-mailing hopeinhenry@gmail.com. He also welcomes conversation with those willing to share their stories.