'Something brought me back': Amid opioid crisis, southwest Baltimore County works to save lives

Two and a half years ago, Jason Jones picked up his prescriptions and walked down a wooded trail by Liberty Reservoir, a spot where his father used to take him fishing.

At 33, after two decades struggling with addiction and substance abuse, the Catonsville native texted his mother to say goodbye. He downed 60 oxycodone pills, 130 muscle relaxers and a handful of blood pressure pills. He heard the helicopters as he faded out.

Emergency personnel, he said, administered Naloxone, an overdose drug, and took him to Northwest Hospital. Doctors thought he was dead, Jones said — he was in a coma for eight days, and the hospital told his parents he would never wake up.

“That’s why I don’t have a problem with the whole God thing,” Jones said. “Something brought me back.”

Today, Jones said, he is clean, and has been since Aug. 19, 2015.

Many overdose patients in Baltimore County are not so lucky. The county has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, and has one of the highest counts of opioid-related deaths in the state, second only to Baltimore City. Over the past decade, the number of opioid deaths in the county more than doubled.

In the wake of the crisis, county social workers traveled Jan. 23 to Christ the King Episcopal Church in Woodlawn to host a free Naloxone training session, teaching those touched by substance abuse to save a life in the event of an overdose.

More than 25 people attended the session, which covered how to recognize an overdose, administer the drug and save lives through rescue breathing and contacting emergency personnel. Participants earned certifications, each bringing two free doses of the drug home with them.

The county, which has government headquarters in Towson and has a major substance abuse resource center in Rossville in the east, is reaching out to western communities because, officials say, the opioid problem has touched every part of the county.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced in January that the county intends to file a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that make and distribute opioids, saying in a press release that Baltimore County has "incurred expenses relating to first-responder intervention, drug and alcohol counseling programs, employee prescription expense, and loss of economic revenue to the County.” Baltimore City filed a similar lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors Wednesday.

Baltimore County’s budget allocates more than $6 million in health department funding to combat or prevent substance abuse. That number is about $2 million short of 2017’s spending, which Department of Health communications specialist Elyn Garrett-Jones said is because “Medicaid and funding for uninsured individuals is now disbursed through the state’s Administrative Service Organization,” rather than by the county.

‘It knows no boundaries’

Amy Park, a social worker with the county, said although Essex and Dundalk have the highest concentration of opioid overdoses, the problem is “all over the county,” including in the southwest area.

Whites and males make up the largest number of opioid deaths in Maryland, according to state statistics, but overdoses are on the rise for men and women, for people of all races and for every age group.

In an October interview, Capt. Eliot Latchaw, who heads the Wilkens Precinct, said the southwest area precinct saw 182 overdoses between January and October 2017 — about 15 percent of the county’s total. With 34 fatal overdoses as of Oct. 3, Latchaw said, the Wilkens precinct had second-highest total in the county.

Police spokesman Shawn Vinson declined to provide further overdose statistics by county precinct, saying, "I am not sure what information that we have is considered protected medical records versus public records.” The Catonsville Times has filed a Public Information Act request, which was not addressed before publication.

Without specific numbers, however, residents say the crisis is clearly affecting their communities.

Betty Okonski, who runs Southwest Emergency Services in Arbutus, says many of the families she helps are grandparents raising their grandchildren because the parents are in the throes of addiction.

When the Wilkens Police and Community Relations Organization held a town hall on opioids in October, more than 100 people packed into the Arbutus library to attend.

“The thing that’s just so poignant about this particular crisis is that it knows no boundaries relative to demographics,” Garrett-Jones said. “It has no respect of age, race, sex or financial demographics. We are seeing it in every pocket imaginable.”

"I’ve buried a few people I went to Catonsville High School with,” said Jones, who now lives in Pennsylvania. “It doesn’t matter where you live, it doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you have. Addiction can affect anybody.”

‘The death rattle’

If someone is experiencing an overdose, Park told trainees on Jan. 23, they will know by the death rattle.

The “death rattle,” a loud snoring or gurgling noise, is one of a number of possible symptoms of an overdose, Park said. Overdose victims are also limp and unresponsive; can have pale or gray, clammy skin; blueish lips or fingertips; or a slow or erratic pulse.

Opioid overdoses cause death, Park said, because they “suppress the urge to breathe.” Breathing and oxygen are vital to surviving an overdose, she said, adding that techniques like CPR and rescue breathing can save lives.

Rescue breathing, Park said, is performed by laying someone on their back, tilting their chin back to open their airways, pinching their nose closed and breathing into their mouth — two breaths at first, then one breath every five seconds.

Narcan, the brand name for Naloxone, works by filling the brain receptors that opioids fill without causing the euphoria of an opioid and without suppressing the urge to breathe. The drug, Park said, is safe for children and pregnant women, and cannot cause addiction or a high.

Park showed the audience how to tilt a patient’s head back, insert the nozzle of the Narcan dispenser into a nostril and press the plunger to dispense the drug — the plunger is hard to move, she said, but once it does move the whole dose will come out.

If a person does not wake up after 1 to 3 minutes, Park said people should administer a second dose if they have one.

Because Narcan only lasts for 30 to 90 minutes, Park said it is important to get emergency personnel on the way.

‘I was either gonna die or make it to treatment’

Park encouraged Baltimore County residents seeking treatment for a drug problem to contact the Eastern Family Resource Center at 410-887-8465 to discuss options or make an appointment for screening.

The center, in Rossville, is open for walk-in appointments three days a week from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. It is staffed and can take calls until 4:30 p.m. It provides screenings and referrals.

Richard Thomas, a supervisor at the Eastern Family Resource Center, said the distance and limited opening hours can pose a challenge for those who live on the west side of the county.

“The way it is now, people got to drive all the way from Halethorpe, and might get there at 1:05 p.m. because of traffic,” he said, referring to the time the walk-in hours end. “Or they don’t have transportation.”

Park said people who cannot get to the treatment center may be able to access referrals over the phone. As of this month, she said, they can also schedule an appointment with an addiction counselor at the Liberty Family Resource Center in Randallstown two days a week.

One of the barriers Baltimore County faces in getting people treatment, Park said, is the number of treatment beds available — an issue she said is not exclusive to the county.

“Just like any other disease, when you are in acute crisis and you need treatment, it’s important to get treatment right then,” she said. “If you’re having a heart attack, you don’t want to wait two weeks.”

Scott Pendleton, a peer recovery specialist for Baltimore County who said he used drugs for 27 years and has been clean for 24, explained that it is important to have treatment available “on demand” when patients ask for it.

“If you tell an addict there’s a bed available in a week, they’re not going to stop using between now and when that bed becomes available,” he said. “Many of them just use — myself included — use until the very end.”

One of Pendleton's most important tasks, he said, is supporting people during the time it takes to get them into a treatment bed, to keep them from giving up — to “stay engaged with the person who is still using, and continue to champion them and motivate them to stay on the path for treatment.”

To help deal with the rise in need, the county is looking to hire more peer recovery specialists, Pendleton said.

Seventeen days after his overdose, Jones said he was released from the hospital “with all my prescriptions” — the rehabilitation center, he said, could not admit him until 10 a.m. the next morning.

“So I got a hotel room that night and went as hard as I could,” he said. “I was either gonna die or make it to treatment.”

Jones made it to treatment. He went, he said, for his family, and because it was either that or become homeless. But slowly, he began listening, taking suggestions.

“In those 28 days, my life changed,” Jones said.

Pendleton said programs like Naloxone training are important because if people survive an overdose, it can push them to get into treatment.

"Recovery works,” Pendleton told the crowd at the Woodlawn training. “And there is a way out.”

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