As a citizen who has reversed more than 100 overdoses, every now and then I have a cry that is so uncontrollable, and painful, and deep, that I wonder if I will ever stop crying. Recently, I experienced one of those cries.
It was after reversing a young man who was overdosing who looked just like my son. He was 16 or 17 years old, still with his school ID around his neck. It took three doses of Narcan — the overdose reversal medication — to bring him back. Surprisingly, he wanted me to call his parents. When I hung up the phone, I cried, because he could have been my son. I have one son who is 18 and another who is 22.
As a mother, that is something I think about often — that this is a real problem that could happen to anyone. That could have been my son.
To date, I have reversed 102 overdoses. But from my first sometime in 2018 to my 102nd reversal on April 26, the process hasn’t gotten any easier. There’s no way to prepare yourself to look into the gray face of a person who is practically dying — and bring them back to life.
Every time I use Narcan, my heart still beats fast. I’m still scrambling to feel the person’s breath and pulse. I’m still in panic mode. And it still takes me such a long time to come down from that adrenaline — from that fear that somebody’s going to die.
I have lived in Kensington for most of my life. It is my community, my home, and my workplace — but sometimes, it feels like a war zone. I am constantly waiting for a bomb to drop. That’s the effect of reversing so many overdoses — you’re always waiting for a crisis.
In my pouch, I carry a breathing shield, an epi-pen, two tourniquets, a couple of tampons, and Narcan. I use the tourniquets to wrap up wounds of gunshot victims, the tampons to soak up blood from the wounds, and Narcan to reverse overdoses for people who are overdosing on opioids. You would never catch me in nice shoes unless I was going to a fancy event because I don’t leave my house without sneakers and shorts. I am always prepared to run.
But the emotional toll that these reversals take on me — from the long, uncontrollable cries to the unsettled feeling in my stomach anytime I hear the roar of the El — is not something I am ever prepared for. This life — the life of a resident who responds to crises before the paramedics arrive in a neighborhood where gunshot wounds and overdoses are common — is not one that I choose, but one that falls upon me because of where I live.
Outsiders have already written off the people I serve. But I have witnessed overdoses since I was young, and I know that no one grows up wanting to be addicted to heroin. The people that I reverse are daughters, mothers, fathers, and sons. Sometimes they have been my own family members. Sometimes they are complete strangers. Sometimes those strangers — like the young man with the school ID around his neck — look like family members to me.
The stress and trauma faced by people who respond to these incidents is not talked about enough. During a reversal, people bark instructions at me as I work — to Narcan them, to not Narcan them, to use CPR, and sometimes to just “let them die.” It’s hurtful when people say things like this. Not only are they undermining my ability to do my job, but they are neglecting the person I am reversing.
To care for myself, I share jokes with friends or spend time outside of the neighborhood. Water, trees, and the sun bring me healing. Listening to sounds louder than myself — or louder than the sound of the El — calms me. Pennypack, Penn’s Landing, and Rittenhouse are three parks I enjoy going to. I also like to cook. Bread-based meals or lasagna are my favorites.
We need to take breaks. It’s the only way to keep doing the work we are doing because I have to have a sound mind when I am working with people. Sometimes I have to make myself take time off by shutting my phone off and refusing to respond to anything.
People in positions of authority, like bosses or city workers, need to enforce these breaks for employees working in these conditions. People like me are programmed to help — that’s what we do — so advocating for our own breaks doesn’t always come naturally. If employers force their employees to take breaks, they can ensure that we have time to rejuvenate and come back to work with a clear mind.
For others who aren’t in positions of authority, they should check in on us to ask how they are doing.
Discussion groups for those of us living and working in these conditions — perhaps similar to a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous — could be implemented to help people in Kensington heal together. This is emotional work that needs to be talked about — not from a clinical point of view — because we want to continue to do this work that we love, but from a loving and supportive point of view. At the end of the day, I have to make sure my people are okay.
In my community, we don’t just let people die. We help people, and we love on them. Communities are supposed to help people and that’s why I do what I do. We love what we do and we love the people we serve — we just need some more help to keep doing it.
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Editor: Claire Wolters / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte