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Police Fight Overdoses As Louisville's Heroin Epidemic Rages On

Heroin photo
Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy

The woman's lips were blue.

Officer Brian Hamblin knelt beside her. If he didn't act fast, she'd likely die within minutes.

He rubbed her sternum, but she didn't react. He found her pulse, but it was faint.

Not breathing and near death on a Dairy Queen parking lot in Fairdale, the woman's life depended on Hamblin.

He'd responded to countless overdoses before, some just like this one. He reached for his bag of Narcan and pulled out a vial of the overdose antidote.

He delivered one shot of Narcan through her nose, then waited.

A surge of heroin related overdoses in Louisville and across the country is forcing police officers like Hamblin to adapt from crime fighters to life savers.

They're often first to arrive at an overdose scene and take on dual duty as medical first responder and drug counselor -- resuscitating users and pushing them to beat their addiction.

"Every single day," Hamblin said.

'It's taking over the city'

Louisville Metro Police officers administered 480 doses of overdose antidote during 2016, according to police data. This year, the number of doses administered by police is up some 60 percent.

Health department officials and police leaders, alike, credit the surge to more people using and more instances of drugs being laced with ultra-potent substances, like fentanylor worse, carfentanil.

Overdoses kill users, stress families and tax government services.

Officers in the Louisville Metro Police Department's Third Division respond to overdoses and administer overdose antidote at one of the highest rates in the city, data show.

Officer Hamblin is one of those Third Division officers that responds to overdoses across the city's south end. The division stretches west from Iroquois Park to the Ohio River and south to the county line.

He worries about the needles addicts often use to inject the drug. He worries about the toll addiction takes on families. He worries about people dying in parking lots of family restaurants.

"It's taking over the city," he said.

Thirty seconds after he injected the antidote, the woman still hadn't shown signs of life. The 24-year-old mother's sedan sat parked a few feet away with an empty child's seat in the back.

Her boyfriend stood nearby, shifting his weight and watching nervously as his child's mother teetered on the brink of death.

Forty-five seconds, still unconscious.

Time is a critical element during an overdose. Brain damage and death beckon with each second.

The ambulance arrives and paramedics prepare to load the woman inside. Restaurant employees watch from the window as the extraordinary scene unfolds.

The woman's boyfriend paces outside the ambulance.

"She's the model person," he said. "I don't understand what happened."

An Everyday Burden

Overdoses are not confined to any one area of the city.

Police officers in each of the department's eight divisions administered overdose antidotes during 2016, police data show.

And earlier this year, when emergency crews in Louisville reported 52 overdoses in a 32 hour span, the victims came from 20 different ZIP codes. Jody Meiman, head of Louisville Metro Emergency Services, said that's proof the struggle of addiction spans the city.

Police Sgt. Sean Walsh sees the diversity of addiction nearly every day.

He's seen overdoses in trailer parks and high end subdivisions. He's seen fathers try and fail to revive their children and lonesome addicts die in their front lawn.

Walsh is a Third Division supervisor and 15-year police veteran. He watched heroin rise from rarity to regular burden on local police.

He responds to overdose scenes when officers administer Narcan, the overdose antidote. He signs off on a report noting the use of the antidote and offers other assistance as needed.

And when Walsh pulled into the Dairy Queen parking lot, he recognized the cost of addiction on local governments.

"Yeah, it is taxing. We're using an ambulance and two patrol cars for this," he said. "But if we don't get here, they could die."

'Just help yourselves'

Hamblin readied another dose. Nearly a minute had passed since he first injected her with the antidote.

Finally, she gasped for air. She opened her eyes. She survived.

Emergency crews loaded her into the ambulance. She was scared, but alive.

Hamblin and another officer searched her vehicle, but found no drugs. They told her boyfriend to call a ride. He began to thank Hamblin for saving the woman's life, but the officer interrupted.

"Just help yourselves," Hamblin pleaded. "And help other people, that's the only thanks I need."

He began to fill out a report as his supervisor stood nearby. Before he could print the paper, the radio sounded. Another overdose.

Police were already on the scene.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.