Firefighter-paramedic Curt Stewart holds a Naloxone Hydrochloride injection, which has a generic name of Narcan, in an ambulance at Joliet Fire Station in Joliet, Illinois, Friday, April 6, 2012. Paramedics use Narcan to treat heroin overdoses. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Powerful drug saves users from another
JOLIET — Staying home sick kept her from becoming an orphan.
The 9-year-old girl wasn’t feeling well March 23. Her parents told her the same thing when they came home around noon to their Hickory Street apartment and went into their bedroom. (The Herald-News is not naming the family to protect the minor’s identity.)
“Around 12:45 p.m. the daughter said she heard ‘weird breathing’ coming from their bedroom and looked in to see they both looked sick,” Police Cmdr. Al Roechner said. She ran downstairs and got a neighbor who is a certified nursing assistant.
A 911 call brought police and firefighters to find the 42-year-old man dead and the 42-year-old woman “unresponsive with faint breathing.”
Paramedics gave the woman naloxone and she came to immediately. Within a minute she’d gone from dying to only feeling nauseated … and having to explain what happened to her daughter.
“She said both her and her husband were heroin users,” Roechner said.
Even if the woman hadn’t admitted it to police, her response to naloxone showed she was suffering an opiate overdose. Lt. Chuck Willard, Joliet Fire Department EMS Coordinator, said the drug is one of the first things given when someone is found unconscious for no reason because it instantly begins to counteract the effects of heroin, vicodin or oxycotin.
“It really is a miracle drug,” Willard said of the Narcan carried on every ambulance and fire engine. Pharmaceutical companies also market naloxone as Nalone and Narcanti.
Naloxone molecules essentially overwhelm and swallow up the opiate molecules affecting a body’s cells. The drug has been part of a standard paramedic’s bag for more than 20 years.
And it’s being brought out more frequently. Joliet firefighters gave Narcan to 115 patients in 2010, 124 in 2011 and 41 through mid-March. Sixteen of the 2010 cases and 19 of the 2011 cases were confirmed to be heroin overdoses.
“Obviously, we suspect many more of those cases were heroin, but those are the ones where the patient or someone else admitted it was heroin or we found evidence of it. But a majority of the time they don’t want to tell us,” Willard said.
Female use on the rise
Willard said heroin is “quite the socio-economic equalizer,” with confirmed and suspected overdoses occurring throughout the city. In 2010, three males overdosed for every female and two of those males were less than 26 years old.
“In 2011, we saw a 50 percent increase in females, with the youngest being 21 years old and the oldest being 39 years old,” Willard said. He estimated most overdoses were reported in private settings, “but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a party going on and everybody left when someone started to O.D.”
An overdose of heroin slows your body down to where you stop breathing. Before death occurs the shallow breathing gives a “bluish tint” to a victim.
“You know within 30 seconds if Narcan is working and if we get there in time, you’re pretty much going to make it,” Willard said. “Though sometimes they may have to go on (an intravenous) drip to keep it in their system.”
Paramedics aren’t surprised when someone vomits after being given naloxone and they aren’t surprised if someone they’ve resuscitated is unhappy as well. By stopping heroin’s effects, the medicine also instantly takes away the high.
“Most people don’t go in with the conscious thought they could die and they’re not always grateful that by bringing them back we’ve stopped how they wanted to feel … getting rid of that fix they had to get money for,” Willard said.
Willard agrees heroin uses has increased dramatically over the last few years and feels educating young people about the potentially fatal effects is the best use of resources to deal with the problem.
“I’ve been more than once to a nice house in a nice neighborhood where the dad has called because his 19-year-old son has O.D.’ed,” Willard said. “We’ve gotten there in time, but seeing the look on that dad’s face is awful.”
Updated: May 11, 2012 8:06AM
HOMER GLEN — John Roberts watched his son come home from work at night, drained with fatigue. Inside his mind, the son was languishing in another kind of night, isolated, foreign, hopeless.
Heroin was the night within.
Roberts thought that his son, Billy, was tired after working long hours. Billy sometimes worked day and night, covering co-workers’ shifts. He saved money. He wanted to buy a car. He wanted to go back to high school. Heroin took the life out of those goals, and then it took Billy’s life on Sept. 20, 2009. He was 19.
That year, 29 people died of heroin overdoses in Will County, far greater than any year in recent memory. And with nine deaths so far this year, 2012 is on pace to exceed 2009. The problem, which some recognize as an epidemic, has only gotten worse.
The death of Billy Roberts occurred in Chicago, outside the jurisdiction of Will County. However, the problem had its roots here, and John Roberts wants people to understand that.
Billy Roberts was caught with Dramamine during his freshman year at Lockport Township High School in 2005. During his junior year, he was caught with marijuana, and referred to an alternate school. Instead of attending the school, he began working at various jobs.
Then, he began to use more dangerous drugs: first cocaine, then heroin.
While Billy was working at a restaurant, a co-worker introduced him to cocaine. Fortunately, his parents found out about it quickly, and got him help at a treatment facility.
“The problem with the drugs, it’s a disease of the mind. You have to be very careful. He may have looked like the old Billy, he may have been talking like it. We know he was dried out after that period of time. But the problem is: What was it that originally drove him to the drug? And that’s another thing that we naively missed and didn’t understand,” Roberts said.
The family took all the advice given at the treatment facility. The parents gave Billy rules. Billy returned to Homer Glen and started another job, at a restaurant. His parents encouraged him to get his high school degree, in a general educational development program. He was doing well.
Billy once again became a hard worker.
“The manager probably loved this guy, because it was like, ‘Billy, so-and-so is not coming in, can you work another shift?’ ‘Oh, sure.’ Some days, he would work, and we’d see him go out in the morning and come home at midnight. He was the parents’ dream,” Roberts said.
John Roberts usually drove his son to and from work. One day that changed.
“I’m going to get a ride home from somebody. Don’t worry,” Billy told him.
The father recalls: “I should have been thinking: It was worth it for me to go out at 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. to pick him up, or 10, or whenever they were done cleaning.”
“But anyway, he was getting a ride home. That was the guy who said, ‘Here, you want to try something?’ And he was the guy who introduced him to heroin.”
Early heroin use
Heroin can — and sometimes does — kill on the first try.
“Somebody’s got to make them understand that this drug is absolutely dangerous,” Roberts said. “And you sit down, and you tell them, ‘OK, I know you’ve been drinking, smoking — this will kill you.’ ”
Heroin is a deadly deception. A user might not know he has overdosed. Then he cannot do anything to stop it.
In Billy’s case, heroin did not kill on the first try, but took a slower and steady course. There were signs his father did not catch, but he hopes other parents will.
“He was isolating himself more,” Roberts said. “I thought it was because he was usually so tired. On his days off, he would stay up in his room or just stay to himself. He was tired too often.”
One hint is within the user’s eyes, Roberts said.
“Something that every parent should know: If you see pinpoint pupils, know that you have serious trouble, that your child is using some type of depressant,” he said. “I didn’t see it. Billy had beautiful blue eyes, piercing eyes. I should have seen, when I looked at his face, that his eyes were way too constricted.”
Money was another hint. Billy started to spend his money — after a time of saving it in an account his parents had started for him.
“In this case, the money that he saved, he’s saving to buy a car. We had given him goals, and, ‘Yes, we’ll help,’ like all parents do. Everything was looking good. He was working hard, saving money, he had his goals.”
But he gave up on one goal: the car.
“So things were changing in his life, and maybe at that point we should have said, ‘Sit down, let’s talk.’
One day, that talk did happen.
“When he came to me and said, ‘Dad, I gotta tell you something,’ I was like: ‘Oh, my God. Are you kidding me?’
Roberts knew his son was in serious danger. He tried several strategies. The first was to get his son out of this setting. The family put the house up for sale, but could not sell in the difficult economic market.
Then the family tried to move Billy. For a while, father and son lived at his grandmother’s home in Chicago. They tried other arrangements. Billy started working in Chicago. But eventually, Billy continued using heroin.
The distance between here and Chicago mattered little. His friends could find him.
‘Chasing the dragon’
Heroin is a continual deception, and a continual disappointment. If a user survives his first use, he will never experience the same feeling again.
“It’s called ‘chasing the dragon,’ ” Roberts said. “They’re trying to get that initial high. Anybody who’s gone through treatment will tell you: They never, ever get that same first high. It will never be as great, no matter what you do. And that’s the problem. So they want the high, and they go back, trying to find that.”
Eventually, the family brought Billy back to Homer Glen, and he got another restaurant job.
“He would have owned his own business. That was his goal. Some day, and I believe it, he would have been a great businessman,” Roberts said.
In late September 2009, he wanted to spend the weekend with his old friends from Chicago — friends who were not inclined to drug use, Roberts said. The parents allowed him to go.
“So he went back with his buddy. And his buddy and the other group of friends, they decided to go to a Sox game. They went to the game, and Billy said, ‘I’m going to stay.’ He just stayed. He was going to watch TV, or whatever.”
That night, Sept. 20, Billy used heroin. His friends were gone to a baseball game, and would not return for hours.
“The problem with heroin is the onset is almost immediate, and it depresses your central nervous system, and slowly you nod off and then go into a deep sleep,” Roberts said. “It will depress your heart, your central nervous system, and turn off your heart, in effect.”
“Your breathing will go shallow, your heart will slow down and you’ll start to go into cardiac arrest.”
“And that’s what happened with Billy.”
Back in Homer Glen, John Roberts and his wife were sitting on the couch watching television. Billy’s friend called.
“He said, ‘Mr. Roberts, I don’t think Billy’s breathing.’”
“And we jumped up, startled. If you can picture this, we’re racing to get our coat on, our shoes on, get to the car and start driving into Chicago as fast as we can, while simultaneously giving a young man directions on how to do CPR,” Roberts said.
“So we’re trying to tell him all of his. We’re about halfway there. The paramedic took the phone from the young man. I think the young man was afraid to say that Billy had long been gone, and he was already cold to the touch. So the paramedic said, ‘You’ve lost him.’”
“My wife is in the passenger seat just wailing, and I’m crying and driving, trying to get to him. We got there, and it’s a night none of us will forget. My son and two daughters arrived. I can remember my oldest daughter getting out of the car. She could tell by the scene what’s going on. She just dropped to her knees on the sidewalk, uncontrollably crying.”
Roberts remembers a group of people, grieving in the middle of the night, outside a home.
They were young people, grieving. Night had taken a young life.
Coming Wednesday: A father’s response to tragedy.