War in our backyard
Ground Zero for Election 2016—and Heroin Deaths
Memo to GOP candidates: New Hampshire cares about its heroin problem, not about ISIS.
NASHUA, N.H.—Even though the city has nearly collapsed under the weight of all the politicians who come here seeking the presidency, Lt. Jessica Wyman was not thinking about any election as she sat in her office at Nashua’s Fire-Rescue headquarters. She has been a paramedic since 1991 and on the job in this city of about 85,000 people for the past 15 years.
“The youngest?” she was saying. “Sixteen.”
“Oldest?” she was asked.
“In their 60s,” she replied. “They’ve been using all their lives."
Wyman was talking about the tsunami of drug overdoses and deaths that have swallowed so many people in this state and so many other places too. The cause is cheap heroin, often mixed with fentanyl, and the combination can be fatal.
“Some shifts we go out the door for one OD, return and go right back out,” she said.
Wyman works two jobs. She heads a squad at Fire-Rescue on East Hollis Street for two 24-hour shifts. Then she works as a nurse in the ER of the Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, located a half-mile from Fire-Rescue headquarters.
“I get the victims on both ends,” she pointed out.
In October, Wyman and her crew responded to 32 overdose calls. Five were fatal. So far this month they’ve had 10 and have gone on 132 overdose runs this year. Thirteen have died.
Heroin goes for five or ten dollars an envelope. The drug trail starts in Mexico, winds through this country, lands in struggling cities like Lawrence, Massachusetts, a few miles from the New Hampshire border, where it is cut and often laced with the synthetic narcotic fentanyl which only adds to its addictive nature and availability. Then it is shipped to places like Nashua, Manchester and anyplace else where it can be sold and that happens to be anyplace at all. Overdoses pay no attention to zip codes.
Manchester, a few miles north of Nashua, has a population of 109,000. So far in 2015, 65 have died from overdose and that city’s fire department has responded to 540 overdose calls. Last year, this small state averaged nearly a drug overdose death a day.
“We’re not a small department here,” Nashua’s Deputy Chief Kevin Kerrigan was saying. “Six engines. Three ladders. 170 firefighters and EMT’s. We’re bigger than you think but the overdose calls do put a stress on the system. You wonder and worry about the person who dies of cardiac arrest because you’re busy with an OD call and don’t get to the legitimate taxpayer on time.”
Last week, many of the candidates for president were in New Hampshire. One or another of them swings into the state nearly every day. Many, especially the Republicans, focus on fear as the primary motivation for people to elect them.
Be afraid of ISIS. Be afraid of immigration. Be afraid of Obamacare. Be afraid of Iran. Be afraid of Putin, China, Mexico, Democrats, higher taxes, environmentalists, the core curriculum, gay marriage, government regulation, gun control and oh so much more.
Then last week Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was captured on camera discussing addiction. The clip went viral on YouTube. Millions viewed it, Christie sounding more like a parent and not a politician as he urged people to pay more attention to drug treatment than punishment.
“There just aren’t enough beds. Not enough treatment facilities,” Jessica Wyman said. “The beds we do have, they never get cold.”
According to government statistics, New Hampshire is next to last among the 50 states for access to a bed in a drug treatment facility. Last? Well that would be Texas, represented in the United States Senate by Ted Cruz.
“We’ve been doing this a long time,” Wyman was saying. “Tolerance to the drug has changed. Potency has changed. Availability has changed. We’re dealing with the users not the distributors.
“We use Narcan on some OD victims. It literally can bring them back to life but we see the same users over and over and over. I see them when we get a call for someone down in an empty lot or down by the railroad tracks and I see them again maybe next day or night when I’m in the ER.
“ There’s one woman, she’s OD’d eleven times. In the hospital you bring them back from respiratory arrest with Narcan and they run out the door yelling, 'I didn’t give you permission.’ Okay, you were dead. We brought you back. Good luck. See you next time. I don’t know where it ends but we’re knee-deep in it now.”
The issue of overdoses, death, the availability of heroin and its impact has created a ripple affect on the presidential primary campaign. The immediacy of a needle and a $10 dollar high is seen as more of a clear and present danger than ISIS or a gasoline tax.
“My biggest worry is the safety of my people,” Lt. Wyman said. “Managing the user is easy. Managing the scene is a challenge. Getting in and out is what concerns me because it’s almost always chaotic on an OD call. The place is messy. Usually there are weapons because they want to protect their stash from getting robbed by other users. So my head is always on a swivel when we’re there.
“They are all over the place too. They live on the street. In shelters. They overdose in dumpsters. In the restroom at Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s a shanty town by the railroad where some of them live in empty box cars. You should see it.”
The old rail line is a half-mile from Fire Headquarters on East Hollis Street. It cuts behind a few old brick mill buildings. There were three empty box cars on a side set of tracks the other day and a woman sat in the sun on an overturned milk crate beside one of the box cars.
She gave her name as Sandy and said she stayed in a boxcar with her boyfriend and that she was from Haverhill, Massachusetts and did not want to give her name, age or anything else to a stranger. She smoked a cigarette and spoke in a slow hazy monotone and her eyes registered very little curiosity and when she was asked what was in the large shopping bag set on the ground beside the empty milk crate, she replied, “ My life.”
Over the next few days, Christie, Carson, Fiorina, Cruz, Santorum, Graham, Paul, Kasich and Clinton are scheduled to be in New Hampshire. As they come and go, Jessica Wyman will be there too, simply doing her job, out on the street saving people from themselves.