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Living Overdoses and you

Oct. 10, 2017
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When I was a high school senior, I was invited to a house party. My friend Brett and I left the house a little before 9pm, lied to our parents about where we were going, and headed to the party. It was in an upscale neighborhood, and the host’s older siblings had provided the alcohol. Brett was closer friends with the hosts and most of the people in attendance, so I spent most of the night holding the same cup of warm beer and having empty conversations with people much more intoxicated than me. At about 1:00 am, I was ready to leave and walk home. I asked Brett if he was coming but he said he would rather stay with his friends at the party. He had been drinking all night but didn’t seem to be too heavily intoxicated, so I believed him when he said he would be fine—and I wasn’t worried about him trying to drive home, since we had walked there. Trusting that these friends of his would take care of him if need be, I left with confidence that he was in good hands.   

The next morning, I awoke to a record number of texts and missed calls—some from Brett’s mom, some from acquaintances at the party—all saying that something had happened to Brett. Through this disorganized array of communication, I was able to piece together what had happened after I left Brett in the company of his “friends”: according to other partygoers, he was totally fine—until, suddenly, he just wasn’t anymore. He initially drew attention to himself by attempting to urinate down a flight of stairs and falling the entire length of the staircase. At that point, he lost consciousness and began to vomit on himself. At some point, his “friends” decided that it would cause too much trouble to try to take care of him or call for help. They loaded him into a car, drove him home and dumped him on the front lawn of his house. Since his mother was not expecting him home that night, she didn’t find him until almost 6:00 am the next morning. By then, he was exhibiting signs of hypothermia from being outside all night in October, and his oxygen supply had been compromised long enough to cause slight brain damage.

At first, I blamed myself for leaving him—after all, none of that ever would’ve happened if I had stayed. After some time had passed, though, I shifted the blame to the people at the party: these “friends” of his were so afraid of the consequences of their own actions that they left Brett alone for hours in the freezing cold, covered in his own vomit, without even bothering to call 9-1-1 or alert his mother that he was in dire need of medical attention. 

As you get older, you very well might find yourself in questionable situations like this with alarming regularity.  Whether you witness an intentional overdose, like a suicide attempt, or an accidental overdose like Brett’s, it’s imperative to know what to do should that situation arise. Here are a few ways you can keep yourself and your friends safe in the event of an overdose. 

“Overdose” simply means someone has taken too much of a substance.

Even substances that do not have high potential to be lethal—like marijuana—can cause an overdose. If you use drugs, though, it’s important to be cautious regardless: even if a person hasn’t physically overdosed, everyone reacts to drugs differently, and drugs can exacerbate latent mental or psychological issues that can lead to the person becoming a danger to themselves or others. Alcohol poisoning is by far the most common type of overdose—as many as 50,000 people are diagnosed with alcohol poisoning per year—and it’s extremely dangerous, so if you’re prepared to encounter only one type of overdose, alcohol poisoning should probably be the one.

Several universal side effects may indicate that a person might be in danger of overdose.

The tell-tale signs of overdose include disorientation, shallow breathing, inability to communicate effectively, anxiousness, a racing heartbeat, vomiting, seizures and unconsciousness. Asking simple questions (like “What is your name?” or “Do you know where you are right now?”) can help gauge whether someone needs further assistance. Additionally, many drugs diminish a person’s ability to regulate their own body temperature: profuse sweating, teeth grinding or fading in and out of consciousness are strong indicators that someone is in need of medical attention.

If and when you dial 9-1-1, be prepared to explain who needs help, where they are, and what happened. 

Explicitly tell the emergency dispatcher that you need an ambulance or paramedics, not the police, and give enough details to ensure that the emergency first responders will arrive prepared for immediate action.

Who? If you don’t know the person, any physical description helps. The approximate age, sex, height and weight of the person (e.g. “female, early twenties, about 130 pounds”) can help paramedics determine the best course of action.

Where? If you don’t know the address of where you are, choosing three points of reference will help emergency services locate you quickly. For example, “I am on Spring Street, across from a 7/11 behind a green bench”. Try to avoid non-permanent landmarks, like parked cars, or things that are ubiquitous like street lights or grey apartment buildings. If the person who needs help is in an obstructed location, like behind a locked door or inside a car, this is something else that the dispatcher may need to know.

What? Describe the symptoms that were cause for concern. (There is a difference between unresponsive and unconscious: unconscious people can be awakened; unresponsive people don’t respond when you try to wake them.) If the person is vomiting, bleeding or in a state of psychosis are all important details to share with the 9-1-1 operator.

Knowing exactly what you and your friends are ingesting is crucial for being able to prevent or reverse an overdose.

There’s a limit to how much of any given substance the human body can handle (yes, including alcohol), and combining substances can increase your risk. Additionally, it’s impossible to know exactly what you’re ingesting when you take street drugs, as substances like heroin, cocaine, and even molly are often cut with a number of other substances to keep prices low. The only way to be sure of what you’re ingesting is to test it yourself—if you’re uncertain, you can acquire a test kit online. Many fillers are more nowing what you or those around you are consuming is vital for preventing catastrophe. 

Narcan/Naloxone shots can be administered to counter the effects of an opioid overdose.

Narcan (noloxone) is an opiate antidote designed to reverse an overdose. It is administered through an intramuscular injection or as a nasal spray and begins to take effect in about 5 minutes. That being said, it is important to administer Narcan as soon as possible to a person overdosing. With basic training, anybody can administer Narcan, so it is well worth your while to invest in Narcan if you can because it is the only way to reverse an overdose—the substance is widely available with a prescription from a doctor or pharmacist,

Do not compromise your own safety in the process. 

Especially if the person in question is exhibiting signs of aggression or psychosis, it’s okay to keep your distance while you track down someone who can help. As always, avoid direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids at all costs. Even if you are keeping your distance, it’s important to keep an eye on the individual in question so that you can ensure that their condition is addressed when help arrives. 

Protect the person who is overdosing until help can arrive.

Try to escort the person to a safe place, away from heavy traffic and large crowds. If the person is unconscious or incapacitated, do not leave them; instead, send someone to call for help. Make sure that they can vomit without choking by turning their head to the side or getting them into a sitting position. You will likely need to regulate their body temperature by removing their shoes, socks, headwear or restrictive clothing. Pour water on their head, hands, feet, neck and chest to help keep them cool until someone can get them medical attention. Try to keep the person talking or at least responding as long as possible, and offer them water as needed. 

Be honest with harm reduction workers, medical first responders and doctors. 

Harm reduction workers are not police, medical first responders are not police, and doctors are not police. Although it may seem like it sometimes, your parents or guardians are also not the police, and they will more than likely assist you in seeking needed help without asking questions. These people are there to help, and it is absolutely imperative that you allow them to do their job. That means telling them the truth and staying out of their way. This is where knowing what is in your drugs comes in handy: that information will help the medical professionals determine how best to proceed without causing more damage. Your honesty is a matter of life and death in these situations, and time is of the essence: waiting just a few minutes too long before asking for help could cost someone their life. 

If you see something that isn’t right, say something immediately to a person who can help you.

Even if you are met with resistance, reporting an incident as it is occurring is your obligation as a human being. If someone is exhibiting any combination of the telltale signs of an overdose, check to make sure they are okay, and ask for help if you determine they might need it. The Good Samaritan Law allows for legal protection for a person assisting others in the event of an emergency, so if anything goes wrong while you or anyone else is trying to assist in an emergency situation, you won’t be held responsible. This law was designed to protect people with good intentions who try to assist someone in need. 

The purpose of this article is not to tell you or your friends to “just say no” to drugs. While abstaining from drugs is the only way to guarantee that you will be safe from overdose, drugs are a part of our culture and it’s important to be prepared to encounter them. Yes, drugs have the potential to ruin your life. Yes, drugs are very dangerous and yes, drugs are illegal. But while I can’t condone experimentation, I can’t condemn it either. If you choose to experiment with drugs or surround yourself with people who do, knowing the risks—and how to address them—will ensure the safety of yourself, your friends and those around you.