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USA - ‘Drug tourists’ keep overdosing at this library. Here’s how employees are saving their lives.

  1. Emilita
    Librarian Chera Kowalski has learned to scan the room for signs that someone is overdosing on heroin.

    They usually nod off, get droopy-eyed or “look like they're about to fall — but they never fall.” If the heroin has been laced with the powerful, deadly drug fentanyl, Kowalski said, the user “just drops; or sometimes their body seizes up.”

    [​IMG]A police officer displays a package of the overdose reversal agent naloxone hydrochloride, or Narcan, near a heroin encampment in Philadelphia. (Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)Six times in the past two months, Kowalski, who runs teen and adult enrichment programs at Philadelphia's McPherson Square Library, has shot a dose of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone up a person's nose and watched as they seemingly came back to life.

    With the city in the throes of an opioid epidemic, she and several other employees at the library took a voluntary training class with Prevention Point Philadelphia, learning how to administer the lifesaving agent. The center also provides the librarians with the naloxone, which is also known as Narcan. Their story was first reported by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Newall.

    Kowalski doesn't have any formal medical training, but she's often the closest available help for a person overdosing in the library or in the grassy area outside, nicknamed Needle Park.

    “We call 911 when things happen to make sure that trained professionals are on their way,” the 33-year-old librarian told The Washington Post. “But in this neighborhood, there's a lot going on with drug use, drug overdoses. Sometimes there’s a wait time. So we found that sometimes this is the best way to keep someone else alive.”

    The librarians have long since gotten over any apprehension they had about administering the drug — especially after encountering dozens of addicts on the verge of death, Kowalski said.

    Staff members used to routinely find addicts using in the library's semiprivate spaces, but security guards have cracked down on drug use in the library's walls.

    Still, they haven't been able to keep the deadly drug epidemic entirely out of the building, because after using in Needle Park, most addicts want to go to a peaceful place and just be high, Kowalski said. What better place than the century-old public library that's nestled in the epicenter of Pennsylvania's heroin epidemic?

    Philadelphia's McPherson Square Library is in an area of the city that's widely known as “the Badlands.” Increased competition between heroin dealers and the area's proximity to Interstate 95 has given the Badlands a reputation for some of the best heroin in the region, according to DEA Special Agent Patrick Trainor. Agents have recovered heroin that was 93 percent pure, a potency Trainor called “astronomical.”

    The heroin attracts “drug tourists” from as far away as Michigan and Arkansas, seeking out highs that are as potent as they are cheap, Trainor said.

    People have died by the hundreds. In 2015, according to DEA numbers, there were 702 fatal overdose deaths in Philadelphia. Last year, 907. “And this year,” Trainor said, “I've heard some figures, we may be on track to top 1,200. Is it getting worse? Yes, it is. There’s no question it’s getting worse. The numbers aren't anywhere near remotely slowing down.”

    The spike in Philadelphia overdose deaths mirrors a jump across the state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deems the state's rate “statistically higher” than the national average.

    In 2015, Pennsylvania coroners reported more than 3,500 overdose deaths, a 30 percent jump from 2014, the Patriot-News reported.

    Last September, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) told lawmakers that the opioid epidemic facing Pennsylvania is “a public health crisis, the likes of which we have not before seen. Every day, we lose 10 Pennsylvanians to the disease of addiction. This disease does not have compassion, or show regard for status, gender, race or borders.”

    Across the country, opioids killed more than 28,000 people in 2014, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    As the epidemic sweeps the nation, American libraries have become a pit stop of sorts for drug users, according to the Associated Press, which reported that “they’re free and open for whoever walks in, and lingering is welcome, no transaction or interaction required.”

    The neighborhood around San Francisco's Main Library, for example, has seen a surge in the use of heroin and prescription painkillers, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. And the drug use that has trickled into the library has officials mulling whether staffers should be able to administer Narcan.

    At McPherson Square Library, Kowalski said, staff members have already amended library policies and procedures to stop addicts from using there. The Narcan training, which was voluntary, was the next step after staff members routinely encountered people who'd turned blue and lost consciousness.

    There was the man who told the Philadelphia librarians who resuscitated him that he was on a cocktail of heroin, suboxone and methamphetamine. Or the many, many people who librarians found unconscious in the bathroom, surrounded by needles and drug bags.

    One time, a child coming to the library after school ran to Kowalski and told her “a man had fallen” outside. She grabbed the Narcan and sprinted.

    “Usually someone says something and I’ll just grab the kit and head out,” she said. “I'll make sure somebody calls 911, and administer [Narcan] and hope that everything goes well.”

    Narcan, which can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, is widely viewed as a stopgap measure.

    Communities across the nation have put it into police patrol cruisers, firetrucks and ambulances, hoping first responders can get to overdosing people before it's too late.

    But Trainor, of the DEA, said he's talked with more and more people in the private sector who come into contact with addicts on a regular basis and are thinking about equipping their workers with the kits, just in case.

    The special agent thinks making Narcan kits as ubiquitous as defibrillators is a prudent idea in areas ravaged by drug addiction, like Philadelphia.

    Kowalski said she and the other librarians pushed for Narcan kits and training to help in an emergency, though they realize the epidemic is a much, much larger problem.

    For now, they'll keep sprinting to people who nod off in Needle Park or the library bathrooms.

    “I think it’s keeping people alive until a solution is found,” she said. “Because if you’re using, that doesn't mean you just want to die. It's addiction.”

    So, she said, administering Narcan “kind of gives people a second chance or a third chance if they need it … but we know it's a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

    This story has been updated to note that the Philadelphia Inquirer was the first to report on the McPherson Square Library's role in helping heroin addicts.

    Original Source

    Jun 3, 2017, Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Recent User Reviews

  1. ladywolf2012
    "Librarians have always performed diverse roles!"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Jun 13, 2017
    My mom was the director of an urban library for many years, and she always performed very diverse roles: reading consultant, therapist, baby-sitter, friend to the homeless, bathroom monitor--all kinds of strange and interesting jobs. But this is one she would never have imagined back in the 80s when she died. Good for these amazing people for jumping on the boat and performing functions that were NEVER in their original job descriptions!
  2. mess clean
    "Very informative"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Jun 3, 2017
    I had no idea (never thought about it) that libraries would be so desired by drug users...nor that the staff there might benefit from having narcan on hand.

    This was an eye-opener for me. And, that 93% pure heroin figure is absolutely astounding.
  3. MJRicky
    "There's hope for humanity after all!"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Jun 3, 2017
    Great read. It restored a little faith for me. On a side note, do you think this is in the librarians job description? Reorganize the card catalog, send mail to members with passed due books, administer narcan to the over dosing junkies in the study area... And there goes the faith in humanity that article just restored.
    Cwb20022 and Emilita like this.


  1. Cwb20022
    Not far from the train station or Kensington ave. Often referred to as America's largest open air drug market.

    Been in this area way more then I care to admit. Although most people I know just find an abandoned house to use. The amount of user needles laying around this area is unbelievable.

    I have to say I have a lot of respect for these librarian's doing what the can. If there's one place that needs it. Its this area. Words can't describe it

    Thanks for posting emilita
      mess clean and Emilita like this.
  2. JaneGault
    I hope this idea catches on. Band aid on a gaping wound or not, it is lifesaving.

    Kudos to those library staff members and to @Emilita for sharing.
      Cwb20022 and mess clean like this.
    1. Emilita
      Jane, thank you but the kudos should go to Chera Kowalski. To think a librarian is observant and aware of social issues like drug overdoses just shows that slowly the trickle of knowledge is being given to the public and pro-active measures are being taken to ensure individuals safety. Articles like this show that people care and are willing to go the extra mile to:
      1. Inform themselves
      2. See a problem and try to resolve it.
      3. That there is still good in the world and people are trying to make a difference.

      I'm the messenger, but it feels good to know that l can find positive articles to post that give examples of the general community caring enough about people that they don't even know.
      Cwb20022, mess clean and JaneGault like this.
  3. Cwb20022
    @messclean this particular area of Philadelphia around here is known as the place to ho for good heroin and easy to get. Like I said earlier words can't describe it. Its very unique and one of a kind. But heroin rules it.

    Its well known around here as the place to go for heroin. And there's a train from most of the small towns directly getting dropped off on its door step.

    Just type Kensington Philadelphia into YouTube and you'll get an idea.
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