Dr. Marcus Romanello, medical director for the Fort Hamilton Hospital emergency room, checks equipment in the emergency room of the hospital in Hamilton, Ohio.
SPRING LAKE, Minn. — On a beautiful Sunday last October, Detective Dan Douglas stood in a suburban Minnesota home and looked down at a lifeless 20-year-old — a needle mark in his arm, a syringe in his pocket. It didn’t take long for Detective Douglas to realize that the man, fresh out of treatment, was his second heroin overdose that day.
“You just drive away and go, ‘Well, here we go again,’ ” says the veteran police officer.
In Butler County, Ohio, heroin overdose calls are so common that the longtime EMS coordinator likens the situation to “coming in and eating breakfast — you just kind of expect it to occur.” A local rehab facility has a six-month wait. One school recently referred an 11-year-old boy who was shooting up intravenously.
Sheriff Richard Jones has seen crack, methamphetamine, and pills plague his southwestern Ohio community but calls heroin a bigger scourge. Children have been forced into foster care because of addicted parents; shoplifting rings have formed to raise money to buy fixes.
“There are so many residual effects,” he said. “And we’re all paying for it.”
The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman spotlighted the reality that heroin is no longer limited to the back alleys of American life. Once mainly a city phenomenon, the drug has spread.
Cocaine, painkillers, and tranquilizers are all used more than heroin, and the latest federal overdose statistics show that in 2010 the vast majority of drug overdose deaths involved pharmaceuticals, with heroin accounting for less than 10 percent. But last month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the 45 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths between 2006 and 2010 an “urgent and growing public health crisis.”
In 2007, there were an estimated 373,000 heroin users in the United States. By 2012, the number was 669,000, with the greatest increases among those 18 to 25. First-time users nearly doubled in a six-year period ending in 2012, from 90,000 to 156,000.
Experts note that many users turned to heroin after a crackdown on prescription drug “pill mills” made painkillers such as OxyContin harder to find and more costly. It’s killing because it can be extremely pure or laced with other powerful narcotics.
In hard-hit places, police, doctors, parents, and former users are struggling to save lives.
“I thought my suburban, middle-class family was immune to drugs such as this,” says Valerie Pap, who lost her son, Tanner, to heroin in 2012 in Anoka County, Minn. “I’ve come to realize that we are not immune. ... Heroin will welcome anyone into its grasp.”
Spreading the word
On Feb. 13, 250 people filed into a church in Spring Lake Park, Minn. There were moms and dads of addicts, as well as children whose parents brought them in hopes of scaring them away from smack.
Dan Douglas took a microphone as a photograph appeared overhead on a screen: A woman in the fetal position on a bathroom floor.
“You just don’t win with heroin,” Mr. Douglas said. “You die or you go to jail.”
It was the third such forum held over two weeks in Anoka County, home to 335,000 people north of Minneapolis. Since 1999, 55 Anoka County residents have died from heroin-related causes.
Five years ago, county officials were focused on stamping out meth labs. Then investigators noticed a climb in pharmacy robberies, and started finding Percocet and OxyContin during routine marijuana busts.
As prescription drug abuse rose, so, too, did crackdowns aimed at shutting down pill mills. Users turned to heroin. “It hit us in the face in the form of dead bodies,” Mr. Douglas said.
Authorities are working to educate doctors about the dangers of overprescribing painkillers and are fighting to get heroin off the streets. The idea for the forums came not from police but rather from Ms. Pap, a third-grade teacher whose youngest son died of a heroin overdose.
In 2012, Tanner was pursuing a psychology degree at the University of Minnesota, and dreamed of becoming a drug counselor. He had not, to his mother’s knowledge, ever used drugs.
Then one day Tanner’s roommates found the 21-year-old unconscious in his bedroom.
Amid her grief, Ms. Pap realized something needed to be done to educate others. She met with county officials, and soon after the community forums were developed.
Antidote saves some
Brakes screech. The hospital door flies open. A panicked voice shouts: “Help my friend!” An unconscious young man, in the throes of a heroin overdose, is lifted onto a gurney.
It’s known as a “drive-up, drop-off,” and it’s happened repeatedly at Fort Hamilton Hospital. The staff’s quick response and a dose of naloxone, an opiate-reversing drug, bring most patients back. Some are put on ventilators. A few never revive.
“We’ve certainly had our share of deaths,” says Dr. Marcus Romanello, head of the ER. “At least five died that I am acutely aware of ... because I personally cared for them.”
Dr. Romanello joined the hospital about two years ago, just as the rise of heroin was becoming noticeable in Hamilton, Ohio, a blue-collar city of 60,000 people. Now it seems to be in nearly every part of daily life.
“If you stood next to somebody and just started a conversation about heroin, you’d hear: ‘Oh yeah, my nephew’s on heroin. My next-door neighbor’s on heroin,’ ” said Candy Murray Abbott, who helped her own 27-year-old son through withdrawal.
Heroin-related deaths have more than tripled in Butler County, where Hamilton is the county seat. There were 55 deaths last year, and within one two-week period, the city’s emergency paramedic units responded to 18 heroin overdoses.
Users run the gamut, says EMS veteran Jennifer Mason — from streetwalkers to business executives.
Dr. Romanello’s hospital saw 200 heroin overdose cases last year. Overdose patients usually bounce back quickly after given naloxone, or Narcan. It works by blocking the brain receptors that opiates latch onto and helping the body “remember” to take in air.
At least 17 states and the District of Columbia allow Narcan to be distributed, and bills are pending in some states to increase access to it. In Ohio, a new law allows a user’s friends or relatives to administer Narcan, on condition that they call 911.
Dr. Romanello says his patients are usually relieved and grateful by the time they leave his hospital. “They say, ‘Thank you for saving my life,’ and walk out the door. But then, the withdrawal symptoms start to kick in.”