JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The opioid overwhelm just continues to grow on the First Coast.
“There’s an epidemic going on,” Donna Hightower, an operating room technician at Orange Park Medical Center, described the problem bluntly Thursday.
The latest Jacksonville Fire and Rescue (JFRD) numbers bear out that assessment, showing monthly statistics as recent as August, that include 350 overdose calls to 911 that month. Apart from June (359), that ranks as the most in any calendar month since at least 2013, maybe ever.
“[JFRD’s] Narcan usage comprises about 38 percent of my overall pharmaceutical budget, alone,” Division Chief David Castleman told First Coast News, speaking of the emergency antidote drug many first responders use to revive opioid overdose victims.
Dr. Frank Humphries, an emergency room physician at Orange Park Medical Center, said “The problem is “getting exponentially worse,” a claim borne out by JFRD’s numbers, which show a total number of 911 calls reaching 1,782 in 2015. That number climbed to 2,982 the following year, and the projected total for calendar year 2017 tips the scales at 3,686.
Hightower says too many of the cases she sees are expectant mothers.
“I would probably have to say I’ve seen, maybe, 30,” she said of her three years at Orange Park Medical Center.
Hightower says it has pained her to watch one addicted baby after another, unable to articulate their anguish.
“There’s the shaking, there’s the trembles, there’s the excessive crying, there’s the sleepless nights,” Hightower said of the infants forced into withdrawal from drugs they were force-fed in the womb. She’s been so moved by what she’s seen, she decided to become foster parent to a boy born in early August.
“I developed a bond with him. I would go and I would feed him and I would hold him, and I would cuddle with him, and I would sing to him," she said.
It’s a warmth she exudes in conversation and while interacting with the baby boy, as if he were her own. But her words and tone sharpen somewhat when asked her feelings about addicted women who become pregnant.
“Our babies should have to be born into this world addicted to anything,” she began. “It’s a choice that is made by someone else. I call it selfish,” she continued, pointing out that help is available for those who seek it and commit to it.
“If you feel you can’t do it on your own, find someone that can walk side-by-side with you,” she urged. “[Addicted expectant mothers] feel that, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just have a kid; someone else will be responsible for it’.”
Dr. Humphries described the crisis as a combination of poverty, escapism, as well as the combined availability of fentanyl and drive of addiction.
“I ask them, how much of this did you do. Their response is always a dollar amount – ‘I did 20 dollars’,” he said, pointing to a curious pattern.
“They know that these opioids have fentanyl in them," he said. "They’re looking for it because it gets you higher for cheaper, and that’s what’s leading to their overdoses.”
Humphries says he’s observed trends similar to the JFRD’s numbers. Asked how the frequency has climbed, he says the number of overdoses he saw three years ago were, “maybe once a month, per provider”.
Flash forward, and the not so bad old days don’t seem so long ago.
“A lot of times it’s more than one overdose a day,” Humphries said of present-day. “Last month I had one shift with three in the middle of the day.”
He acknowledged that not all overdoses are fatal, but too often they are.
“It’s $20 to kill yourself, in many cases. And that’s what’s really shocking," he said.
Although he’s heartened by individual examples of grace like what his colleague Hightower is doing, Humphries said he believes the problem will worsen before it improves.
“[Addicts] get rejected from their pain management doctor, then they turn to the street. Once they turn to the street they’re a lost cause,” he said.