The handwritten, one-page letter arrived at Alexandria, Va.’s Firehouse 208 in November. It began, You all might not remember me at all, but in the morning of July 12, 2016, you saved my life.
Letters like these are not common—it is not often that patients reach out to the first responders who saved them, especially patients who may feel the stigma of an addiction.
For Alec Z., however, it was important for his recovery process to come to terms with the harrowing events of the night two years ago when he relapsed. He’d been in recovery, then returned to heroin. Alec went to bed that night and the next morning was found by his wife unconscious, vomiting, and barely breathing.
“According to what the doctors said, it is likely I wasn’t breathing adequately for most of the night,” Alec says.
The effects of the overdose were severe. Alec’s course at the hospital was long and serious. He spent many weeks in occupational and physical therapy learning how to walk and talk again.
Now Alec lives in Alaska with his wife, whose job took her there from Virginia. Since his recovery and move, he and his wife have been blessed by a daughter, and Alec works actively to remain clean by attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the Anchorage jail.
“I like going to sit down and tell my story. I’m in recovery on a daily basis, and I can bring a certain level of experience to the meeting,” he says.
Virtually Every Organ System Affected
The morning Alec’s wife called 9-1-1, the first responders at Firehouse 208 in Alexandria were changing shifts. Lt. Gordon Wills was the officer in charge of Engine 208 and arrived first on the scene, entering with FF/EMTs Juan Valdez and Lauren Wickson. Wills and his crew were met by Alec’s then-girlfriend/now-wife, and they realized that Alec was barely breathing.
After checking for and finding a carotid pulse, the crew began treating Alec’s inadequate breathing with an OPA and a BVM.
“[Alec’s wife] told us right away there was a history of opiate use,” says Wills. “When the medics arrived we passed on the information, and they prepared Narcan for administration.” (In the last year Alexandria Fire Department EMTs have been trained on intranasal Narcan administration, but at the time this skill was not in their scope of practice.)
Alec’s inadequate breathing, coupled with his pinpoint pupils, made paramedics Jim Blivin and Michael Kohrt consider an overdose as the cause.
After the mechanical ventilations and medication administration, Alec quickly began to improve and no longer tolerated the OPA or the BVM. However, he remained unresponsive. Blivin and Kohrt continued supportive care throughout transport to Inova Alexandria Hospital.
Virtually every organ system was affected by Alec’s overdose. Upon admission to the emergency department, he had aspiration pneumonia, sepsis, renal insufficiency, elevated troponin, metabolic acidosis, and rhabdomyolysis. During his nine-day hospital stay, Alec was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and a basal ganglia infarct. Incredibly, when he was discharged to acute care rehab, most of Alec’s systems had recovered.
‘Truly a Reward’
The crews of Firehouse 208 were pleasantly surprised when they received Alec’s letter. This set in motion a call to Alec, which ultimately resulted in his visit to the city. Kohrt noted that after he drops off a patient, he doesn’t often get to see the “human element” of his interventions.
Wills agrees, saying, “It’s truly a reward to see this, because it just doesn’t happen much.”
Alec says little things remind him daily about his near-death experience. Sometimes, he says, he’s watching TV or a movie and sees someone in the ICU or being read their last rites, and he thinks, Oh, yeah, I almost had that. He says this makes him think about the numerous people who helped him recover to where he is today.
In Alec’s letter to the first responders, he detailed his long course of recovery, as well as his gratitude for the responders and the changes he’s made:
I was in the hospital for three weeks and in rehab…for four months. I haven’t taken a drug since. Today I live in freedom and honesty. Thank you so much for saving my life.