PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — For someone who has overdosed, the difference between life and death can come down to how cooperative a friend, relative or passer-by is with emergency dispatchers.
"They’re afraid to be honest with us," said Priscilla Alban, who has worked as a dispatcher in upper New York state’s Clinton County for 17 years. "We’re not law enforcement. We’re not going to come and raid your house or anything. But the more information we have to relay to EMS, the quicker they can offer the assistance that’s needed."
'Any drug use?’
Joe Cayea, a dispatcher with 20 years on the job, told the Plattsburgh, New York Press Republican the days of answering calls for chest pains and breathing difficulties are getting pushed aside by overdose responses.
"It’s getting to the point where you get a call and you’re trying to verify the age right off," he added.
While elderly patients are assumed to be experiencing cardiac or diabetic issues, patients in their 20s prompt the question, "Any drug use?"
When the questions go in that direction, fellow dispatcher Micere Brunelle said, callers can sometimes become reticent.
"They don't want to answer your questions,” she said, “and you just have to bluntly sometimes say, 'Hey, we're here to help you, and any information you give us to give to EMS is going to help whoever you're trying to help.'"
Overdoses can happen anywhere
All three dispatchers know that an overdose can happen anywhere.
They recalled one incident where the caller reported that someone was slouched over against a wall near the bathrooms of a local park while softball games were going on.
"Her lips were turning blue, so we had to (have someone) lay her down and do a head tilt to open up her airway a little bit," Cayea said.
"Luckily, there was somebody there that was willing to do that," Alban added.
Cayea also mentioned an incident where the patient, before 911 was called, "pretty much died on the (highway).
"The vehicle pulled off and stopped at a hotel and dropped the person off. But luckily that person didn’t leave."
Responding deputies thought the woman was dead on arrival, he continued. But they administered Narcan and brought her back around.
EMS personnel have carried the life-saving overdose-reversal drug on ambulances for years, said Brunelle, a dispatcher for seven years.
More recently, police, people struggling with addiction and friends and family members also have access to it.
The key to having Narcan, Brunelle added, is to make sure other people know you have it, since it can't be self-administered.
"It’s all timing because unless you give Narcan within a certain window, it doesn’t work," she continued. "That’s the thing about Narcan that I think the public doesn’t realize."
Arguments exist for and against having Narcan available to the general public, Cayea said.
"You’ve got some people thinking that’s not the right way to go, putting it out there, because then it feels like false safety," he explained.
He takes the stance that the drug saves lives and that people are going to continue to use no matter what.
"It’s just like having AEDs (automated external defibrillators) in police cars," Brunelle added. "They save lives. Having Narcan with police officers, that saves lives. Having Narcan out in public, that saves lives."
Another frequent unknown, Brunelle said, is the outcome of a call.
"Unless we hear it from somebody that was on the scene, that we know personally or something, or they call and give us an update, we don’t always find out what’s going on,” she said.
"We don’t know if there’s another step for them for treatment," Cayea added, "or if they just go back out on the street and we’re dealing with them the next weekend."
Chapman writes for the Plattsburgh, New York Press Republican.