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The behind the scenes look at an overdose call — an EMT’s perspective

February 5, 2018

In the past 18 years, the number of deaths by overdose of opioid pain relievers and heroin have increased by more than 200 percent, according to the CDC. The effects of the drug and opioid epidemic can be felt nationwide — even here in Traverse City. People deal with it in their families, with their friends, and for some, they deal with it in their line of work. One of these people is local EMT Joshua Salyer. He has been an EMT in the Grand Traverse Area since 2004.

Salyer works the 12 hour graveyard shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.. Some of the more routine aspects of his job are examining the status of the ambulances and restocking supplies. Then he and his team grab some dinner, and patiently wait for the calls to start coming in. During football season, they stand by at high school games as a safety precaution.  

One of the increasingly more common calls is due to a drug overdose.  Salyer reported that the Traverse City area has been hit hard with the opioid epidemic because the drugs are cheaper and easier to get than they ever have been.

“[In 2004] there was an average of two or three overdose calls per year,” he said. “Now we have weekly heroin overdose calls.”

To combat the overdose, ambulances must have a stock of  the medications that reverse the effects of the overdose — Narcan or Naloxone. After the EMTs arrive and check on the potential overdose victim, they assess how they’ll proceed, checking the unconscious person’s airway and pulse. Time plays a major role. If they are having a hard time locating a vein, rather than wasting precious time, they can administer Narcan through the nasal passage. Then, they wait to see if the Narcan did its job of blocking the opioid receptors.

Calls seldomly come in one at a time, Salyer said. They usually come in waves. Multiple overdose calls typically mean that a new shipment of more concentrated narcotics recently arrived in town. One common overdose scenario is an addict in recovery relapses and uses the same dose they used before they went into recovery.

“Their body can’t handle the amount of drugs and opioids in their system as when they were at their peak quantity,” Salyer said.

Many people don’t recognize how a person can become addicted without knowing it. Most  begin their addiction because of an injury Salyer said. Then, as they continue to take their prescription drugs — which, depending on the class of injury, can be very powerful — they become dependant on them.  But when their pills are gone, it’s hard to get more, either legally or illegally. The solution: get something else that doesn’t require a prescription and costs less. This “something else” could be heroin, methamphetamines, or cocaine.

Addicts often resist seeking treatment because they fear being judged. There is a stigma that surrounds the disease of addiction. But healthcare professionals are there to help those who have a disease — and that includes addition.

“You are important,” Salyer said when asked what his message to those struggling with addiction should hear.

And for the families and friends of addicts, the biggest thing to remember is that you can’t get in trouble for dialing 9-1-1. This is stated in the Good Samaritan Law. It basically translates to if you’re at the scene of an accident (such as an overdose), you dive right in to help solely from the kindness of your heart — not for some alternative reason. The Law states that good samaritans shall receive “immunity from criminal charges for people all ages who are seeking emergency medical assistance for themselves or friends as a result of a drug overdose from any illicit drug.”

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