Remain calm, practice empathy, and be prepared: How McPherson security guard Sterling Davis responds to trauma

Sterling Davis, a security guard at McPherson Square Library, poses for a portrait in McPherson Square Park on April 29, 2019. Davis has reversed 14 overdoses. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

On April 17, husband, father, and security guard Sterling Davis talked with Claire Wolters, the Kensington Voice Voices editor, about his experience reversing overdoses as a security guard at McPherson Square Branch. In the last two years, he has reversed 14 overdoses.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Newall once referred to you as the “calm in the storm.” How do you remain calm?

[That] is a perfect name for what I do here and what I stand for. I remain calm because I know if I’m not calm, nothing will get accomplished. I can’t be erratic when I’m handling children, adults, certain situations — somebody has to have a calm hand. I have to care for a lot of things in this library — patrons, staff, and anybody [who] come[s] through those doors — and I have to remain calm so I can do my job.

Is it ever challenging to remain calm?

Not at all. I’ve always been this way since I was a child, so it comes naturally to assess what’s going while keeping a cool head. I don’t let too many things interrupt what I’m doing, so I can perform my jobs as a parent, as an employer, and as [a person]. I’ve been this way since I was a teenager — for forty years.

What was your childhood like?

My mom was a preschool teacher. My father worked for United Communities. I was involved in a lot of community activities — after-school programs, a lot of summer camps — and we had people who cared about what other children were doing. I got that nurturing from older people about what you should and shouldn’t do. As I got older, I knew what it was like to have empathy for people and care about the next person, no matter what.  

When did you first become trained on how to use Narcan?

About three years ago, maybe three and a half years ago, we had an all-staff training — like a retreat — down at the main branch. The librarian and I were interested in it because prior to that, there were so many people overdosing inside the parking lot and in the community. Two and a half years ago, when the epidemic started to spread as much as it did, it was time to use the training that we received.

Do you remember the first time you administered Narcan?

There’s been so many that I can’t even say the very first person. Sometimes it was multiple people, not just one person at a time. When I was first doing it, there were two or three a day, maybe every other day, maybe one or two hours apart, maybe twenty minutes apart — it was happening quite rapidly. You could see the ambulances going up the street all day long. And sometimes, you wouldn’t even get an ambulance [because] the ambulances had so many other calls in this community like shootings, domestic violence, break-ins, robberies, thefts, everything — that’s what initially made me and the librarian take up the training. We said, ‘well, they can’t get here, we might as well get trained so we can be the first people to respond in these situations.’

How many overdoses have you reversed?

I’ve done about 14 [reversals] on my own and assisted in about 15 before that with the prior librarian. She’s since moved on to the executive branch of the library downtown. So, [last summer] I was [basically] the only person here that was trained and willing to administer Narcan. Everybody else may know something about it, but they’re not as experienced with handling those type of situations. Every time something happens, they call me.

Do you always have Narcan on you?

During the winter months, I don’t always have it on me, but I know when it starts to get warmer I’m going to start carrying it. I usually carry two packets in my pocket just in case I see somebody on SEPTA or down in South Philadelphia or on the El. I’ll either administer it or give someone else the packet and let them administer to the person.

How often would you say that happens?

I haven’t done any outside of this park, ever. I guess because people come to the park knowing they can freely use drugs. One guy said, ‘They might come to the park because they know if they go out, there’s always someone who will bring them back.’

One of the common arguments against Narcan is that it enables drug use by continuing to bring people back. Do you have any thoughts on that?

You’ve got to have empathy for people. It’s not a good thing to see somebody dying right in front of you. It’s even worse than seeing somebody who gets shot — to see somebody slowly dying, that’s not a nice thing. With kids around, it’s traumatic. It might not affect kids as children, but when they’re older, it might affect them. They’ll have bad memories.

What type of advice or strategies do you have for kids to get over those mental images?

I really couldn’t tell you. If they’re seeing it constantly — [and they are,] they have to come to the library, they have to play in the playground — [it’s going to affect them]. Mostly, we have to stop drug users from coming to the park to use the drugs. [But] it’s a public space. You don’t know what they have in their pocket until they use it, [and] you really can’t judge a person until they use it.

How do you personally deal with seeing this over and over again?

I’m here to work. Whatever somebody needs me to do, I’ll try to help. At the end of the day, I just leave everything that happens here. When I get off that train, that’s when my day starts — and once I get on that train, my day stops. I still have to go home and be a father and a husband to my family. Unfortunately, the people that live in this area have to deal with it almost on a daily basis. Everybody out here is not the same. Some people love it here, but they can’t control who comes and goes in their community. They grew up here. They like it here. They just don’t like what goes on here.

Would you say that it feels pretty normalized to see all this happening?

Yeah. It’s not a good thing to say, but it becomes normal. You can be empathetic and have sympathy for other people, but you’ve got to keep your life in order to. You have to try to maintain your own [sanity] and not let it affect you.

Do you ever have conversations about being a first responder at work or with friends?

I’m always conversing with people about my experiences, about responding to drug overdoses, about everything and anything that goes on with life. Life throws you challenges and sometimes people need to talk to other people to keep them straight forward and tell them that everything’s going to be okay. There are challenges and hurdles that you have to overcome. As long as you try to overcome those challenges, one step at a time, then there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

How important are those types of conversations?

Very important. People need to be heard. You may not have the answers for them, but you have to let them get what’s in them out. I feel the same way about myself, too. I’m always talking to people to share information, to share my feelings about things. That’s probably what keeps me going. I’m always sharing with my wife, with family, with my friends. They encourage me, tell me I’m doing a great job, and I tell them how they’re doing. It keeps me going.

What should people know if they want to make a change in this community?

If you want to make a change, you’ve got to get involved. You can’t stand on the sideline and watch the game — you’ve got to be in the game to make a change.

Would you recommend more people to carry Narcan?

More people should definitely get training. You may run into somebody on public transportation, on an outing, in your leisure time, in the movie theatre, shopping center, supermarket — you never know. A two-hour training just to save a life, that’s not asking much.


What did you think about this story? Send a note to editors@kensingtonvoice.com, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section. You can also tell us what you think in person at our neighborhood events.

Editor: Claire Wolters / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte

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