Ohio Community Paramedics Help Patients Overcome Addiction
Mary Beth Lane
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Aug. 20—An image seared into the memory of Scott Duff motivates him to help Fairfield County residents who are addicted to opioids and other drugs get clean and reclaim their lives.
"I was at an overdose death scene in June," said Duff, the director of Project FORT (Fairfield County Overdose Response Team). "When you see a mother on all fours in the front yard, bawling her eyes out because she just lost her son, that stays with you and re-energizes you for the task."
For Fairfield, Athens, Hocking, Ross and Franklin counties—all among a growing number of counties across Ohio that have formed overdose-response teams—the task is to work with survivors of drug overdoses and their families to get them into addiction treatment and other help as soon as possible. The teams also lend a hand to addicts who haven't overdosed but are seeking treatment and other help.
"We want to eliminate overdose deaths and reduce the number of accidental overdoses," Duff said.
This year, Fairfield County, which has nearly 152,000 residents, has had 70 drug overdoses, including five that were fatal, Duff said. Franklin County, which has nearly 1.3 million residents, had 180 suspected overdoses just in the week that ended Aug. 12, according to data reported to Franklin County Public Health by hospitals and Columbus Division of Fire medics.
Project FORT, which started this year, has helped about two dozen people enter drug treatment.
"Not all of them successfully," Duff said. "Unfortunately, relapse is a part of recovery. We're not going to give up on them."
The overdose-response teams operate similarly. Franklin County's RREACT (Rapid Response Emergency Addiction and Crisis Team) includes a mental-health nurse and a social worker who follow up with overdose patients treated by Columbus fire medics. Those who are interested in additional recovery are then put in touch with the nonprofit group Southeast Inc. for treatment.
The Ross County sheriff's office and Chillicothe police have a team including a deputy, an officer and a drug-treatment provider who visit the homes of people who have been resuscitated with the overdose-reversal drug Narcan; the team offers treatment options and other help.
Athens County started a team in April that also makes home visits to overdose survivors. Some are ready for help; others are not, said Sheriff Rodney Smith.
"Some people tell us to 'git,' and that's OK, but the majority don't," Smith said. "People are receptive."
U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, an Upper Arlington Republican, hosted his sixth-annual addiction roundtable in Lancaster on Wednesday, bringing together judges, prosecutors, sheriffs, social workers and others from area counties. He said he thinks the teams are making a difference, and he plans to look into securing federal funds to beef up the teams, which rely on state, county and local funding to operate.
Fairfield County's Project FORT operates on a $139,500 annual budget, funded primarily with grants from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office and the Ohio Department of Public Safety, plus county funding.
The team includes Duff and Violet Township Fire Department community paramedic J.D. Postage, a former addict who now is a peer recovery coach and a mental-health clinician. The team receives overdose reports from the sheriff's office and police and fire departments countywide, and it visits overdose patients to discuss treatment and other services.
"We want people to realize that help is out there," Duff said.
Aaron Smith, 38, has reclaimed his life, attends Project FORT's monthly meetings and also works as house manager at a Creed of Recovery house in Lancaster for men who have gotten clean and want to live with others in a sober environment.
Smith was addicted to heroin and anti-anxiety drugs for 13 years, and he had entered treatment a handful of times, only to relapse. He was living at a relative's home in Pickerington and still abusing drugs when he had a seizure last year. The relative called 911, and a medic squad took Smith to Fairfield Medical Center, where he stayed 10 days, the first four in a medically induced coma.
When Smith awoke in the hospital, Postage was there to offer help. As a community paramedic, it's his job to visit people after medical emergencies to offer help and services intended to keep them safe and at home. Postage told him about Project FORT, which was in the planning stages then, and hospital workers told him about Creed of Recovery.
Both programs have helped give him a new purpose, Smith said.
"Staying connected and helping someone else is a big deal," he said. "It's important to remember where I came from."