The radio sitting near Herb de la Porte’s desk squawks out a tone and the dispatcher scrambles an ambulance: There’s an unresponsive man in a van behind Wal-Mart at Chestnut Commons in Elyria.
“What do you think that is?” de la Porte asks, shaking his head. He has a pretty good idea.
We’ve been talking about overdoses, and it’s clear the vice president of LifeCare Ambulance suspects this is another one.
“It’s before noon on a Monday, and there’s somebody unresponsive in a van. Sure, it could be someone taking a nap,” he says, then takes a long pause, his face wry. “But I don’t think so.”
When an emergency crew arrived about two minutes after dispatch, the van was gone.
LifeCare runs 24 ambulances in Elyria, Lorain, Amherst, South Amherst, Grafton and Carlisle townships, and also on the Ohio Turnpike. All told, it covers more than 150,000 people, roughly half of Lorain County.
Two years ago, de la Porte’s crews gave naloxone doses to 253 suspected overdose patients. The number skyrocketed last year to 595 doses of the anti-opioid drug, also known as Narcan.
As of our talk, the company’s paramedics had already used naloxone 63 times, outpacing the 37 recorded by the same day in 2016.
“Who’d have thought this would be such a thing?” he said. “A really big issue is how addictive this stuff is. Heroin is ruining people’s lives. You’d think by now people would realize this is bad stuff.”
Overdoses — not just from heroin, but also notably cocaine, fentanyl, and prescription painkillers — are killing people at nearly three times the rate of motor vehicle crashes.
Had you asked de la Porte six months ago, he would have guessed Lorain County had seen the drug threat peak and deaths would start to decline.
He would have been wrong. Tragedies didn’t slow as the year wound down and the final overdose toll was 131 lives, according to coroner Stephen Evans.
Emergency workers are becoming increasingly discouraged by the sheer volume of drug calls, de la Porte said.
A huge percentage of calls — about 10 percent of emergency run volume — are overdose-related. And when paramedics hear the patient is “unresponsive” during daylight hours they immediately suspect drugs, though the culprit could be anything from stroke to heart attack.
So how do they know whether illegal drugs are involved?
As soon as an ambulance pulls up, paramedics start looking for clues. If an overdose is in play, they’ll see pupils dilated down to pinpoints and the patient won’t be breathing.
Since heroin shuts down the part of the brain that controls respiration, crews will grab bag masks and breathe for the victim. That’s often enough to save a life.
“They’re not going to die from anything other than not breathing,” de la Porte said, but naloxone is the next line of action.
LifeCare uses naloxone by intravenous tube, which is much more effective than the nasal spray police officers carry. If it works, paramedics know the problem was opioids, even though the victim often won’t admit it.
There is little chance we’ll see a sudden reversal in the flow of overdoses, de la Porte said. “We might as well brace ourselves for even worse,” he said.
To that end, readers need to realize how nasty a drug it is, how dangerous it is to dabble with opioids. As de la Porte said, opioid addiction is a fatal disease.
There is some good news. Opioids legally prescribed to Ohio patients have decreased by 162 million doses since 2012, according to the Ohio pharmacy board.
That’s about 20 percent.
Over-prescription has been pegged as a major cause of addiction by many, including Evans, who called legal painkillers “heroin in pill form.”
In a town hall forum last week, the coroner said patients should consider taking over-the-counter pain drugs rather than narcotic variants prescribed by doctors.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.