By ALLISSA CORAK
As of Oct. 1, St. Joseph County first responders aided to more than 100 overdose calls due to abuse of prescription pills, heroin, or other opioids. That number is on track to nearly double from 2014 with only 65 calls all year, according to Lt. Tim Williams from the Mishawaka Police Department.
Williams was just one of six panelists who volunteered to speak to a handful of IU South Bend nursing students about the opioid epidemic plaguing the community. “I’ve done CPR on more overdose victims than I ever have. It’s an epidemic,” said Williams.
While the stereotypical heavy drug user is seen as a younger person of low income, the experts agree that the demographic of users is shifting to no demographic.
Williams said he’s seen people overdose as young as 20-years-old and some as old as 65. “Its all across the board,” he said. Williams noted that white men lead overdose deaths in the county.
Even high school students have fell victim to the grasp of opioid abuse.
“You can’t put a face to it,” said Rebecca Savage who tragically lost two of her children to an opioid overdose two years ago. Nick, 19, and Jack, 18, were standout students at Penn High School.
Nick just finished his freshman year at IU Bloomington, studying chemistry and microbiology and Jack was handed his high school diploma only weeks before their mother found them both dead.
A night of partying with pills ripped her sons away from her.
“Any of you can babysit for a neighbor and have access to the medicine cabinet,” said Savage as she explained how easy it is for teens to snag a prescription. “There’s pills and there’s pills everywhere,” she added.
According to Savage’s research, only 28 percent of a prescription is taken. The other 72 percent sits in a pill bottle waiting to be used.
Williams said the excess of medicine often will result in “pharm parties” among teens. During these parties, a concoction of prescription medication is set out for any party-goer to take, often resulting in an overdose. “It only takes one bad choice and that’s the last one,” said Williams.
Not only does the opioid crisis affect the community’s young, first responders, physicians, and public health administrators have to adapt to the rise in users, too.
Robin Vida, Director of Health Education at the county’s health departments said the opioid epidemic is just another piece to the public health puzzle. “The lens is shifting to include the opiate battle,” she said. Vida notes the health department’s job is to look at numbers and instill policy or programs that could help to reduce the rapidly growing numbers such as needle exchange programs.
As Vida and her staff crunch the numbers, paramedics like Andrew Myer from the South Bend Fire Department, treat the numbers first-hand. He says because the numbers of overdoses are increasing, the demand for the lifesaving drug Narcan continues to go up, creating a financial burden on the fire department.
Myer bluntly said, “What do you think has happened to the price of Narcan?” He added, “We give it in the most inexpensive way possible.”
Physicians such as Dr. Brandon Zabukovic and Christine Hawkins will not prescribe opioid medications to patients unless there is a dire need. Hawkins said 70 percent of the patient she sees have been to other prescribers looking for drugs such as pain killers.
She went on to say if she didn’t prescribe that medication, patients often go elsewhere. “It’s a near limitless demand,” explained Zabukovic. “The expectation of no pain is unrealistic,” he added.
As unpromising as rehabilitation of the community may sound, the experts are hopeful that through programs such as pill drop boxes, in and outpatient facilities, and innovation in treatment, opioid abusers can get the help that they need.
Williams notes that more education is vital and that is why he has dedicated over a decade to the D.A.R.E. program. His fear is that the crisis will trickle down to younger children and they need to know what not to do.
Overall, the experts agreed there are systematic failures that aid in the growth of the epidemic and that needs to change. “We want to get it done. Sometimes the system fights against you,” said Myer.