Riding with the Opiate Epidemic's First Responders

Carol Smith's picture

I’ve been in the back of ambulances before, but never for work. So my recent ride-along in the front seat of one of Medic One’s fleet of response vehicles was a first for me. It was an unusual opportunity. Medics are understandably hesitant to import bystanders to a scene. The last time they did it, I was told, was when CBS News 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer reported on Medic One in 1974, noting for posterity that Seattle was the “best place in the country if you’re having a heart attack.”

So I was grateful that the Seattle Fire Department granted my request to accompany their medics into the field to see the opioid drug epidemic from their perspective. I’d asked after learning, during the course of reporting about Washington’s prescription epidemic, that medics respond to up to 50 overdose calls a month in King County and about half of those calls involve prescription painkillers.

My ride-along took months to arrange. The result is this piece for KUOW, about efforts underway to supply more bystanders with Narcan – an antidote that can wake someone up from an overdose and save his life. Medics carry Narcan, and citizens, by law, are allowed to. But the drug is not widely available. If more people did carry it, public health experts say there would likely be fewer calls to Medic One about overdoses.

Lt. Craig Aman, a 22-year-veteran paramedic, met me at the Battalion 3 headquarters, a warren of small offices across the street from Harborview Medical Center’s emergency room. 

We started in the afternoon and rode into early evening – prime hours for overdose calls. Locutia – the crew’s name for the automated “female” radio voice – announced dispatch calls as we circled downtown, and Aman listened for clues that a call likely involved an overdose situation. Then we would put the siren on and hightail it to the scene. I learned to distinguish the different siren tones – the escalating wail of an aid tone versus the warbling fire tone and the growler blast that clears intersections.

As a long-time newspaper reporter, I’m used to blending into the background – the proverbial “fly on the wall”  – when I cover an unfolding event. But to make good radio, you have stick a shotgun mic right into the middle of the action. When we arrived at a scene with two men unconscious in the men’s room in the downtown Nordstrom store, I crouched down to get my digital recorder as close to the man sprawled on the floor as possible. The team of responders was so focused on getting his vitals and calling orders that my presence barely registered.

When a new batch of heroin hits the street, Aman says, overdoses spread like fires – uphill. The first calls tend to come from the area between 2nd and 4th Avenues, and Pike and Pine Streets. Over a period of hours, the calls track their way up toward Capitol Hill. Aid crews follow, working 24-hour shifts that start at 7:30 in the morning and end the next day, with a couple of days off between shifts. The work is intense, but rewarding – especially when the outcomes are good.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” said Aman. “It’s hard to describe – the feeling you know you’ve made a difference.”

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