By Noah R. Bombard

Jose Colón’s legs started shaking and his eyes rolled back into his head. He hit the floor with a thud. His body was shutting down.

Colón started shooting heroin because he liked the feeling of losing control. A victim of sexual abuse as a child, it helped him to forget. This was the ultimate loss of control, the ultimate form of forgetting. He was one short breath away from being dead.

But someone interrupted that journey: A paramedic. Colón doesn’t remember much of that day in Springfield a decade ago. He remembers telling his brother to take it easy as the two shot heroin. He didn’t take his own advice. And he does remember his body roaring back to life when the paramedic hit him with a dose of Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, a drug that counters the effect of an opiate overdose. It buys vital time to get a victim to a hospital for treatment.

He cursed and fought paramedics all the way to the hospital. The Naloxone and quick treatment at the hospital saved Colón’s life. But he never would have had a chance if it hadn’t been for a simple phone call.

Seconds after Colón hit the floor, his brother and girlfriend called 911. Police were first on the scene. Colón wasn’t arrested. Neither was his girlfriend or brother. The primary concern of the public safety officials who responded that day was saving Colón’s life.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the number of people overdosing on opiates (ranging from heroin and crack cocaine to prescription drugs) is increasing across the state. In 2007, 637 people died in Massachusetts from opioid overdoses, the department reports. The Worcester Department of Public Health reports there were 138 overdoses in Worcester last year. Ten of those people died because they didn’t get help in time. The most common reason, says Benito Vega, is fear. Fear that calling 911 will land you in jail. It’s something that Vega and the Worcester Cares Opioid Overdose Coalition are trying to combat with a public campaign to let people know that calling 911 when someone overdoses – even when the caller is high – will not automatically land you in jail. More importantly, it can make the difference between a life ending and a second chance.

“It’s not about crime, it’s about you saving a life,” Vega says.

Benito Vega. (Photo by Noah R. Bombard)

Benito Vega. (Photo by Noah R. Bombard)

Vega has been working with a detective from the Worcester Police Department Vice Squad to educate the public about the importance of calling 911 when someone overdoses. It’s not easy when you’re talking about an activity that is illegal.

Vega says the initial feeling from many drug users is that the public – and police – want them off the streets and are more concerned about busting them than saving lives. Partnering with a Worcester detective, Vega is able to send a different message.

“I’m not saying [police] all do the same thing,” Vega says, “but this detective’s response and the response of many police is the person on the floor.”

But a lot of it does depend on the circumstances – and who you ask.

“If we show up at a house and there’s stuff there, we will make arrests,” says Sgt. Kerry Hazelhurst, spokesman for the Worcester Police Department.

The difference in responses is something that strikes to the heart of providing help versus prosecution when dealing with drug problems. Legally police responding to a 911 call could arrest anyone caught doing an illegal activity. With cause, they could search the place, seize drugs and arrest perpetrators.

A bill being sponsored by Sen. Steven Tollman, however, would change the equation of chance. The proposed legislation, dubbed The Good Samaritan Bill, would protect people from prosecution of possession of illegal drugs when they call a 911 emergency. The law would not protect people from being prosecuted for drug trafficking or being arrested on outstanding warrants.

Getting Help

The goal of everyone involved should be getting people help, says Worcester Public Health Commissioner Dr. B. Dale Magee.

“The intent is to rescue someone from an overdose,” Magee says. “The intent further is to try to address this so that they’re not faced with this problem again. Someone who’s addicted to opioids is not a healthy person. They’re not living a good life. They’re not going to live terribly long one way or another. For us to rescue them and then throw them back is not a particularly good strategy.”

And it’s that point where they’re thrown back where users are at most risk for overdosing.

“If we look at the county jail, 80 percent or so are addicted to one substance or another,” Magee says. “When they’re incarcerated they’re detoxed, so they lose some of their tolerance. When they’re put back on the street if they return to their bad habits they may think that the dose they needed before is the dose they’re going to need that day.”

According to data reported to the Department of Health, 70 percent of those discharged from prison will overdose within two weeks.

That leads public health officials to the task of not only getting people to call 911, but finding ways to get people help before they overdose. And in that, the city has a chance to make some progress. Magee, who’s relatively new to his post, says he was reviewing the numbers and alarmed when he saw the number of overdoses that occurred among prison releasees. At just about the same time, the city received notification that it had been awarded a grant to provide services to those just released from prison to help prevent them from slipping back into the lifestyle of using and addiction.

“There’s a significant opportunity when people are released from rehab, because unless there is someone there to take them to rehab, they’re going to relapse,” Magee says.

It doesn’t always work. At least not right away. After Colón’s overdose a decade ago, he continued to use. In fact, he says, he got high right after getting out of the hospital. It took two of his daughters dying and his wife’s suicide before he finally left Springfield and came to Worcester for help through Community Healthlink, a Worcester organization that helps people overcome issues of drug abuse, homelessness and mental illnesses. He’s been clean for two years now.

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