Increase in overdoses puts spotlight on heroin problem

A heroin-related DUI resulted in a one-car crash back in March. The driver, who was unconscious when paramedics arrived at the scene, turned himself on a warrant last week.
A heroin-related DUI resulted in a one-car crash back in March. The driver, who was unconscious when paramedics arrived at the scene, turned himself on a warrant last week.

A dramatic uptick in heroin overdoses, as reported by Trumbull police last week, may have come as to a shock to some in town. For others, they say it highlighted a growing problem that has, up until recently, been underreported and ignored by many.

Trumbull police said last week that officers have responded to three near fatal heroin overdoses in a two-week period. Those near-fatal calls came soon after police finished training with naloxone, or Narcan. Officer Tim Fedor, who is also an emergency medical instructor, taught the officers how to recognize the signs and symptoms and administer the intranasal Narcan.

Overdose deaths normally occur when the respiratory system slows down and eventually stops. Narcan will temporarily reverse the depression of the respiratory system and allow the person to breathe more effectively.

The use of Narcan by police is something that Theresa Doonan, a Trumbull resident, has been advocating for in Hartford. Doonan’s son died last year, at age 22, of a heroin overdose. Doonan has since co-founded the Connecticut Heroin Task Force, and First Selectman Tim Herbst has appointed Doonan to a new First Selectman’s Drug Prevention Task Force in town.

Last year, legislators passed a law allowing all first responders, in addition to EMS, to carry the drug. The law is key to saving lives, some say, since police are usually first on the scene at overdose calls. Doonan was one of many advocates pushing for the law.

“One of my biggest problems was everyone I spoke to, no one was aware of the problem,” she said.

Heroin arrests and overdoses have not made the news, until recently, Doonan said.

Reports show that the state had 257 heroin deaths in 2013 and 307 in 2014. Some project those numbers to double in 2015, Doonan said.

Heroin is not necessarily a city problem. Statistics show the typical user is a white suburban male, who may not be aware what he is using.

“The problem is, the kids that are dying are first- or second-time users,” Doonan said.
Awareness and stigma
Parents need to know the facts about heroin, Doonan said.

“Your grade A student may go to a party and it’s there to try,” Doonan said of heroin. “They need to know how lethal it is. It’s not smoking a joint.”

The new town drug task force is forming now. Doonan said it will be a partnership with the Board of Education, police, mental health workers, an area hospital, and others. Doonan also plans to work with Trumbull Parents Against Underage Drinking (TPAUD) to spread awareness.

“We teach our children that if they drink and drive they could die, and they see it happen to friends or young people and it sinks in,” Doonan said.

Last year, three Trumbull residents died of heroin overdoses, according to First Selectman Tim Herbst. Many don’t realize how high the death toll is, Doonan said, because there is a stigma.

“When someone dies of a heroin overdose, people look at you like, ‘What did you do wrong?’” Doonan said of parents. “Certain things you just don’t talk about, and heroin is one of them.

“People need to realize that heroin reacts very differently than alcohol or other drugs — it changes the makeup of the brain. Your body becomes physically dependent on it and you can’t just stop,” she said.

Last week, Trumbull police said the heroin problem is statewide. Investigation into the source of the heroin that was nearly fatal is under way.

“It is believed the cause of many of these overdoses is the heroin that is being purchased is laced with a synthetic opioid called fentanyl,” police Lt. Leonard Scinto wrote in a release Wednesday. “When the fentanyl is mixed into the heroin, the amount varies from one dose to another, so the user can never know if there is a lethal amount of fentanyl in the heroin they purchased.

“These three incidents are currently being investigated in conjunction with several other law enforcement agencies in order to determine if the heroin purchased and used in these three overdoses has a common source,” Scinto said.
Connecticut needs work
Doonan says states like New York and New Jersey have more legislation and outreach surrounding heroin use. Doonan said there are several bills up for discussion in Hartford that could make a positive difference.

In New Jersey, those who call 911 when someone overdoses have immunity from getting arrested. A key step to saving lives is making sure those with an overdose victim aren’t scared of the repercussions of calling for help. In New York, college campuses have Narcan available for emergencies, Doonan said.

“Nothing can be done quickly without having laws to allow it,” Doonan said.

Doonan also looks forward to working locally, with many town organizations and groups.

“We are getting a lot done and we have a long way to go,” she said. “At least people, all of a sudden, have awoken to the fact that we have heroin in this town and it’s a danger.”