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Chicago Underground

We hear a lot about the damage to society that the abuse of drugs and alcohol can cause. In a city the size of Chicago, home to some 2.7 million residents, there are plenty of people misusing alcohol and drugs daily. When you work nights as an emergency responder, you tend to encounter quite a few of them.

A couple of recent stories from paramedics in the Midwest show the complexity of dealing with those who abuse drugs and alcohol.

First, we have the example of gentleman who called 9-1-1 around 2 a.m. complaining of chest pain. Paramedics raced to his location outside of one of Chicago’s subway stations. They sat him gently down in the ambulance and started to question him about the nature of his pain.

Only it turned out there wasn’t any pain. The EMS crew established instead that the man had just been released from a nearby hospital and had realized it was too late to be accepted into the local men’s shelter for the night. With nowhere else to go, he called paramedics in hope of some assistance—and some painkillers.

As the paramedics found out when they took the man to the hospital that had released him, he was a recurrent 9-1-1 caller and hospital visitor who tried to use the emergency services to get hold of prescription drugs. He was in no pain, but clearly in need of help. The emergency responders handed him over to the hospital triage team and left him under medical supervision.

Alcohol, too, is the cause of plenty of 9-1-1 calls—but not just as a result of mishaps while under the influence. One Chicago paramedic recalls being dispatched to the train station to deal with a person who was unwell there. Upon arrival, the station’s security guards directed emergency workers to the food court, where they found a 55-year-old homeless man asleep on the floor.

It turned out the security guards had let the homeless man into the food court, where he’d proceeded to drink from a bottle of vodka until he passed out. Not caring to remove him themselves, the staff called 9-1-1.

One has to question why the guards let the situation get to the point it did, as well as why they felt it was enough of an emergency to warrant calling 9-1-1.

The paramedics dutifully assessed the man, recording his vital signs (blood sugar, blood pressure, pulse rate, respiration rate, oxygen saturation level, etc.) and what action was taken. In this case, that meant transferring him to the nearest hospital, handing him over to the care of the charge nurse, and leaving him to sleep it off.

Supporting people to be rid of drug and alcohol addiction, particularly when homelessness is also a factor, is an incredibly complex task. It requires a joint approach from a wide range of services.

Sadly, too many of those who need help are unable to access the intensive and sustained support they require. Instead, they slip through the cracks and disappear until the emergency services encounter them once more, after dark.  

Will Knight is a 30-year member of the Chicago Fire Dept.

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