The Heroin Battle

By: Amanda Compton-Ortiz

DeSoto County’s EMS Unit 5 out of Hernando arrived on scene for a female in her 70’s who was reportedly dead.

Neighbors had not seen her in a few days and were worried.

The crew forced entry into the woman’s apartment, where the floors were littered with dirt, garbage and prescription pills and pill bottles. As they made their way through the debris, they spotted the woman facedown on her bed.

Paramedics immediately started the woman on an IV, pumping enough medicine into her body to ensure a good airway and keep her breathing.

En route to the hospital, crew members started looking over the pill bottles they had collected from the patient’s apartment. They noticed all of the medicine had been prescribed to her, some very recent and others still recent enough she should have still had them left.

Also, the medication was prescribed by different doctors. One particular doctor had prescribed several different narcotics to her, including 100 mg of morphine three times a day. This left crews concluding to the obvious; the woman had been doctor/pill shopping to satisfy her addiction to prescription drugs and opioids. And it nearly killed her that day.

The crew later spoke to the woman’s daughter who admitted her mother had been addicted to prescription drugs for over 50 years and that doctors were more than willing to give her any medicine she wanted as long as she had the money.

This call was answered in 2013 and is just one of hundreds that paramedics and other emergency personnel in DeSoto County respond to every year as misuse and abuse of prescription drug and opioid narcotics continues to climb across the State of Mississippi and throughout the United States.

According to DeSoto County Coroner Jeffrey Pounders, the county leads the State of Mississippi in opioid overdoses.

Pounders said there has been a significant increase in the number of overdose deaths throughout the county. Last year, he said, approximately 24 deaths were caused by drug overdose. That number was repeated in 2015. And since January of this year, about 20 drug overdose deaths have already been recorded.

“We are only halfway through this year and there have already been just about as many drug overdose deaths as recorded for the entire two previous years,” Pounders said. “It is definitely a problem that is only getting worse.”

The majority of those deaths, according to Pounders, were caused by an overdose of crystal methamphetamine, as well as heroin, often laced with fentanyl – a synthetic narcotic analgesic about 100 times more powerful than morphine.

The heroin-fentanyl combination is a dangerous, often deadly drug, warns Pounders, as he says the fentanyl is about “50 to 60 times stronger” than heroin itself and often has immediate negative side effects for users.

“I’ve seen about 3 or 4 victims this year that died with the needle still in their arm,” he said.

Pounders added the majority of drug overdose deaths that have occurred in the county are Caucasian males and females in their 20’s and 30’s and living on the northern end of the county, where the population is more dense and geographically closer to neighboring Memphis – a metropolis for drug dealing and trafficking.

DeSoto County’s Emergency Management Services (EMS) Director Mark Davis said he’s seen a significant increase in drug abuse and overdose cases just since he took the position last June.

And locally, he said, the epidemic is not one that is narrowed to any specific age group, race or social class.

“It’s a broad spectrum,” he said of those who are victimized by the growing trend.

Davis said he expects the onset of a new drug will happen soon throughout DeSoto County.

The drug is known as carfentanyl. According to reports, it is essentially a diluted elephant tranquilizer that is about 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

Davis cited problems with the drug already happening in places like Connecticut and Ohio, where emergency responders called to the scene of carfentanyl users have been hospitalized with symptoms including seizures that resulted from coming in contact with the drug. It has also been reported that the drug, even in small amounts, can be fatal simply by touching or smelling it.

Davis said, there have also been several overdose cases reported for the drug in surrounding states including Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri. And he doesn’t think it will be too much longer before it reaches parts of DeSoto County.

“Luckily there hasn’t been any cases reported in this area yet,” Davis said, “but it’s circling around us. We are just waiting.”

In Southaven, Davis said there has been at least one overdose case reported earlier this month from use of another new street drug by the name of Flakka. Davis described the drug as a “bad salt” that reportedly influences users to strip down naked and/or become cannibalistic among other violent behavior. It reportedly has the potential to be much more dangerous than cocaine.

Horn Lake Fire Chief David Linville said the city has seen an increase in drug overdose calls in the last year or two by up to at least 20 percent.

“Two years ago we would respond to these type of calls about once or twice a week and now we get them about 3 to 5 times per week,” he said. “It’s sad to see our society going in this direction but unfortunately it is becoming more and more common.”

Linville said he’s also concerned about the significant amount of taxpayer dollars being spent to combat the ever-growing epidemic, stating that it costs between $1,000 and $1,500 every time an ambulance leaves the fire station and nearly $40 for every time a paramedic must administer a Narcan shot that consists of a lifesaving medication called naloxone used to reverse the lethal effects of an opioid overdose.

According to Davis, in 2015, DeSoto County EMS purchased 70 doses of Narcan and in 2016 ordered 80 doses. To date, 34 doses of the medication have already been purchased for this year.

Olive Branch EMS Lt. Ricky Barnett said between January 2016 and now, the city has responded to approximately 75 overdose calls.

While the number of overdose calls has continued to increase over the last several years, Barnett said he expects an even bigger increase in calls for secondary overdoses.

He attributes this largely in part to a recent decision made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide the drug antidote Narcan over the counter in the form of an FDA-approved nasal spray. Mississippi is one of several states now offering the medication for sale over the counter.

For a person experiencing an opioid overdose, Barnett said, if they are unconscious, the Narcan will almost instantly revive them.

“People may take risks that they normally wouldn’t take,” said Barnett of the medication being so readily available to the public. “But it is still a better option than seeing someone die from overdose.

“I’m hoping some good comes of it.”

Barnett said EMS responders are not the only ones able to administer Narcan in emergency situations. Police officers throughout the county are now also equipped with the drug. They are only able to administer the drug as a nasal spray where as EMS personnel can choose between nasal or intraveneous administration because they are certified to do so.

Walls Police Chief Herb Brewer cited just two overdose calls recorded for the town in 2016 and so far this year there have been none.

DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco said in the last couple of years there has definitely been a rise in heroin use in his jurisdiction, which includes the unincorporated areas of the county.

“We are leading the state in heroin overdoses,” Rasco said. “This is strictly an epidemic of people not thinking about what they are doing…It’s sad.”