Wed, Apr 11, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Manchester’s ‘Safe Station’ program provides hope in battle against opioids

AFP, MANCHESTER, New Hampshire

Firefighters assess the condition of a 35-year-old man who overdosed on heroin in Manchester, New Hampshire, on March 28.

Photo: AFP

Tucked away in the corner of a US fire station are two plastic chairs, a tiny poster saying “anyone, anytime, can recover” and a poem in memory of a 20-year-old woman who fatally overdosed in 2016.

The space is little more than a cubbyhole, but has become a safe harbor for drug addicts in New Hampshire and a symbol of hope in the US fight against the opioid crisis, a group of drugs that, like morphine, dulls pain and induces euphoria.

Born out of overprescription of powerful painkillers, the opioid epidemic is such that US President Donald Trump declared a national public health emergency in October last year.

In 2016, the epidemic killed an average of 175 people per day from all walks of life.

After overdose emergency calls blew up in 2015, firefighters in New Hampshire’s largest city set up the “Safe Station” program in May 2016 that allows anyone with a drug or alcohol problem to stop by and be welcomed with kindness and without judgement.

“Would you like some water? A coke?” Christopher Hickey, the Manchester Fire Department paramedic who heads the program, asked addict Brendan, who was just dropped off by a friend in an obvious state of anxiety.

After two years clean, the 33-year-old, who did not want to give his full name, said he started using again in November last year and has since “overdosed 18 times.”

He wants help to get well again.

The fire department takes those who drop in to their partner in the self-help community, Granite Pathways, to evaluate their needs and put them in a detox program.

After Brendan, 31-year-old Cody arrived. Homeless, with a black eye and a right arm covered in track marks, he fell back into addiction in February.

“This is my first time coming to this program,” he said. “I came because it was quick and efficient. I am hoping to get it ... not do the same stuff over and over again.”

White and in their 30s, Brendan and Cody are typical of the opioid crisis, which has hit New Hampshire, Ohio and West Virginia particularly hard.

New Hampshire holds the worst fentanyl overdose rate per capita in the entire country.

Fentanyl — an opioid 50 or 100 times more powerful than heroin, has flooded the market since 2015, Hickey said.

Traditionally a painkiller, it is now being reproduced by drug traffickers, particularly in China and Mexico, and is sold in the US.

A few milligrams bought on the street for US$5 to US$7 is enough to overdose, Hickey said.

Manchester, a former textiles hub recently given a new lease of life thanks to high-tech firms such as Segway, is in the eye of the storm.

From January to last month, firefighters responded to 152 overdose calls.

“It will affect anybody ... even wealthy neighborhoods,” 28-year-old firefighter Jim Terrero said.

It was after looking after the brother of a colleague, on the brink of suicide, that Hickey suggested opening city fire stations to anyone struggling with substance abuse.

The idea was that “someone could just walk up” and “be treated like a human ... treated without stigma, without any preconceived notions,” he said.

Hickey thought it would be just a couple of people, but 80 people showed up the first month, and two years down the line they average 160 people per month.

In less than two years, the city’s firefighters have welcomed more than 3,300 people, not just from New England, but from as far away as Texas or Alaska.

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