JEFFERSONVILLE — On a late afternoon earlier this summer, Jeffersonville Chief of Police Kenny Kavanaugh was driving down 10th Street when he noticed a man lying on the sidewalk, motionless. The brief glimpse told him all he needed to know; this person needed help. Kavanaugh circled the block, pulled up onto the sidewalk and quickly assessed the situation.
“I’m still a police officer, that’s a person down. He was there, flat on his back…,” Kavanaugh said.
In less than three minutes, firefighters and EMTs were on the scene alongside Kavanaugh to treat what is called across the field an “unconscious unresponsive.” The man smelled strongly of alcohol, but first responders suspected there may have been opioids in his system, as well.
Knuckles were ground into the man’s sternum in an attempt to revive him with painful stimuli, Jeffersonville Fire Department Sgt. Justin Ames explained later. If that doesn’t work, the Narcan comes out.
The man didn’t respond to the grinding on his chest, so Ames positioned the Narcan under his nose, administered it and the man instantly, and violently, jolts awake. The first responders protected his head against the sidewalk as he came to.
“You just don’t expect at that time of day — was after 5 p.m. — to see a person right there on our main artery road, in need of services after using narcotics, specifically heroin. Unfortunately, it's what we are encountering at this day and time,” Kavanaugh said.
“I remember as a police officer in ’95, we probably made 10 overdose calls that I was involved in as a patrol officer maybe in a single year here in Jeffersonville, and usually it was around the holidays, maybe from depression. That was our overdose scenario. There’s been days here in Jeffersonville now where we will respond to maybe five or six overdoses in a single day, and that’s a number I don’t think the public is really aware of,” Eric Hendrick, Jeffersonville Fire chief, said.
Last month, the Jeffersonville Fire Department responded to 147 unconscious unresponsive 911 calls, 27 of which were later determined to be overdoses. Across Clark County, first responders were dispatched to 52 confirmed overdoses.
“Every call, regardless of what the dispatcher says, we have to treat as a true emergency until we get our hands on the patient and assess the true situation,” Matt Owen, shift captain at New Chapel EMS & Fire, said.
Owen recalled a situation where a woman called 911 for a headache. It turned out she had a brain bleed and needed to be airlifted for immediate surgery.
“Lots of people call 911 for lots of things and we are going to respond just the same if they stump their toe or have a toothache or if they’re not breathing,” Owen said. Ames said the same, pointing out that diabetic coma often looks like an overdose and that you just “never know until you know.”
Among those 52 overdose cases in August, there was no standard location, stock addict or high time of day.
Addicts don’t party on Friday or Saturday night; they use anytime to stave off the reality of withdrawal.
The same day Kavanaugh found the man lying on a Jeffersonville sidewalk, another one passed out while driving and coasted through an intersection near the Wal-Mart in Clarksville. The driver came to and drove off before first responders could locate him.
“They’ll shoot up while they’re driving down [interstate] 65. I had a woman shoot up and hit the guardrail until she stopped. When we got there the needle was still hanging out of her arm. She was still in drive with her foot on the brake. We gave her Narcan, she advised us she was just tired,” Joe Hurt, a sergeant at Jeffersonville Fire Department, said.
According to Owen, New Chapel covers just three miles of I-64 and yet they’ve made many runs to the interstate for unconscious unresponsive drivers.
“Everyone handles things different…. I think the guys and girls become numb to certain things and that’s something about our profession that a lot of people don’t understand and until you do this job, you never will,” Scott McVoy, assistant chief of Jeffersonville Police Department, said.
For Ames, “it’s the crying kid in the diaper, the mom that’s at her wits end or the wife that says she didn’t even know her husband was back on drugs. Those are the ones that stick with me.”
“I come home and my wife asks me how my day was… she really doesn’t want to know. The totality of that day is too much. I don’t get into it. She really didn’t want to hear about my day,” Hendrick said.
“One thing that I always remember… we picked one guy in his late 20s or early 30s and he was going through withdrawal. He was doing his best, or at least I thought he was sincere when he said he was doing his best, coming off heroin and he was sick, he was shaky and he needed to go the hospital and be monitored while he was going through this withdrawal process," Owen said.
"We put him in the back of the ambulance and he burst into tears and begged us not to put an IV in his arm because he thought that IV stick would be too much for him to handle and he would go back to using and that’s the kind of thing that sticks with me. When you see people who are so desperate not to be in this lifestyle that they go through the pain of withdrawal, that they are afraid of a needle stick because it might be too much for them to handle. Because they are handling all they can handle.
“I come here because I want to help someone on their bad day, but I don’t know how to help that and those things aren’t meant for me to be able to help… those are the things that I take home. I know it’s not my job, I know it’s not my place and I know I don’t have the training to do those sorts of things. But not being able to do those sorts of things I think sticks with me,” he said.
Those things that “stick” with the first responders wind up on what is referred to as a mental shelf. Cumulative post-traumatic stress syndrome is relatively new and is developed not from one large traumatic event but rather from small events building up over a long period of time.
Hendrick, Owen, Ames and McVoy all said, in their own way, that an inherent quality in first responders is compassion.
“...it’s inherent in our nature to help people. Every one of the people in this police department wants to help someone. So, if we see someone with an addiction or a substance abuse problem and we see them again, we have a lot of those people, we’ll see them once every couple weeks and they become your ‘regular’ people you deal with, your automatic response is ‘I want to help this person.’ And everyone has that built into their system as a police officer, so it puts us in a position where we want to help, but we also have to enforce the law. Which is stressful for an officer,” McVoy said.