As James Poltrock got ready to pick up his phone Friday to make a call about the accelerated pace of opioid overdoses in Kenosha, he heard an emergency call come in.
There was an unconscious woman in the parking lot of a downtown gas station.
“It ended up being an another overdose call,” said Poltrock, emergency services division chief at the Kenosha Fire Department.
Poltrock is a passionate advocate for programs to address the heroin epidemic that has been rolling through the nation and Kenosha County over the last five years.
This spring, he said, has been a particularly brutal one in the city.
“I’ve never seen it like this before,” Poltrock said.
“Between April 20 and May 9, a 20-day time frame, we responded to 23 opioid overdose calls,” Poltrock said. “Fifty-seven percent of all the opioid overdose calls we have had this year occurred in 20 days.”
Parking lots and restrooms of gas stations, fast-food restaurants and shopping centers are common locations for overdoses — so common the fire department offers information packets along with free Narcan and training to business owners.
Addicts sometimes stop to use immediately after purchasing drugs, and overdose before they make it home.
Saving a life
The manager of the gas station where the woman overdosed Friday morning said she was at work when a customer came in to say someone appeared to be having a seizure in the parking lot.
“Another co-worker and I ran outside because we could just see her feet hanging out of the passenger side of the vehicle,” the manager said.
She said it appeared as if the woman had been about to pump gas — her car was parked in front of a pump, and the fuel tank cover on her car was open.
“Maybe she was leaning in to get her money or something” when she collapsed, the manager said.
As one person called 911, the manager said they pulled the woman out of the car and onto the ground and began CPR until police and firefighters arrived and took over.
The manager recognized the person, saying she stops at the station regularly. She said she is not someone she would have suspected of doing drugs.
“Her color was fading fast; she had gurgly breath; her lips were blue. Her eyes were glazed over,” she said, saying it was a frightening experience. “I asked the cop who came if she was alive, and he said she is for now with all the Narcan they gave her.”
According to a Kenosha Police report, when the first officer arrived the woman did not have a pulse.
At the hospital after she was revived, the 42-year-old woman told police she had snorted heroin off a CD case when she arrived in the parking lot after picking up the drugs.
The report stated the woman told the officer “she is a recovering addict and that today was the first time she used heroin in three years.”
Poltrock said he planned to stop at the station later Friday to provide information packets on recognizing and handling overdoses.
“Maybe they would like an opportunity to have their staff trained on that and have some Narcan available,” he said.
Tracking the data
The Kenosha Fire Department administration keeps a close eye on emergency calls, using the data to plan for and improve its responses.
For overdose calls, Poltrock keeps track of the number, the type of drug believed to be involved, and whether the first responders used Narcan to treat someone with an opioid overdose.
He also notes whether Narcan was used on the victim by someone at the scene before EMS arrived, and whether fire department personnel at the call were able to give family members a packet of information on drug addiction treatment and programs available locally.
Whether the person lived or died is also in the record.
If there is good news in the spike in overdoses in the city, it is that fatalities have been rare. Poltrock said only one of the 23 overdose victims in the 20-day period this spring died.
“The youngest victim was 21 — we had three who were 21. The oldest was 64. The average age was 38,” Poltrock said. “Of the 23, 17 were male, six were female.”
From Jan. 1 through May 12, Poltrock said, there were 79 overdose calls in the city, 40 of those opioid related.
In nine of those opioid cases, Narcan was administered by someone at the scene before EMS arrived. Of those nine cases, five occurred during the recent 20-day period, Poltrock said.
Kenosha County has been attacking the opioid epidemic through programs ranging from treatment courts and counseling to drug therapies like Vivitrol.
The county and the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin also offer free Narcan and training, giving people who know addicts a way to revive people who have overdosed on opioids.
Narcan a factor
Access to Narcan may be a factor in the sharp decline in overdose deaths in the county in 2018, a decline that outpaced state and national numbers.
In 2018, according to statistics from the medical examiner’s office, there were 46 drug overdose deaths, a 19 percent decline from the previous year.
Nationally, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control, overdose deaths fell 3.2 percent through September 2018, falling 4.6 percent during the same time period in Wisconsin.
“There’s no doubt that it is saving lives, no doubt about it,” Poltrock said of access to Narcan in the county.