‘We’re making a difference’: A day with Dayton’s overdose response team

The man answering the door at an apartment on Beckman Street on June 12 has a history of drug use, including an overdose about a week earlier from which he was revived with Narcan.

When he first sees Dayton Police Officer Jason Olson and Emergency Medical Technician Amy Dunkin standing in his doorway he’s defensive, saying he doesn’t take heroin or pills and thinks someone must have slipped him something. He was working on a car and then woke up in an ambulance.

Olson says they are only there to offer help. The more they talk — and listen — to this man, the more he reveals. Maybe he does have a problem with alcohol, he says.

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“I’m tired of this lifestyle,” he repeats several times. He’s left with a stack of information on various addiction treatment options and cell phone numbers for both Dunkin and Olson whenever he wants to talk.

The door knock is a typical interaction for the pair, who work full-time as the city’s mobile crisis-response team, part of Montgomery County’s GROW Program (Getting Recovery Options Working).

The effort is similar to other rapid-response teams being deployed across Ohio to combat the record number of opioid overdoses occurring in communities.

The program pairs up first responders and recovery peer supporters in eight jurisdictions in Montgomery County in an attempt to connect overdose survivors with treatment options. The goal is to turn that person’s second or third or 12th chance at life into the time they become successful in treatment and recovery.

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On a recent ride-along with Dayton’s team they discussed how they’ve seen attitudes in the community change as they’ve offered help and information instead of handcuffs and a ride to jail.

“Before I think across EMS, fire, police, there was kind of a burnout,” Dunkin said. “It was frustrating to give Narcan over and over again to that same person without there ever being anything else past that.

“Now I feel like we’re actually helping people. There’s something past the Narcan to be able to help someone get that treatment.”

Since the Dayton team’s inception in December 2016, they’ve responded to 266 active overdoses and recorded 851 follow ups with individuals who previously overdosed. There were 1,894 overdose calls handled by Dayton police and fire in 2017 alone.

Of those follow-ups, 164 people have entered treatment, Olson said.

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The city points to this effort as an example of how Dayton and Montgomery County are handling addiction as a health crisis instead of a criminal issue — a shift Mayor Nan Whaley said needs to continue for the community to recover.

“Wouldn’t it be great with this terrible tragedy if Dayton became known as the place that learned how to treat addiction like the disease that it is?” Whaley asked. “I think that’s our goal.”

“Down the road I think it’s a positive thing for the police department,” Olson said. He works in uniform so the people he encounters gain trust that the city’s police force cares about saving lives.

The day we rode along with Olson and Dunkin, they had a list of names and addresses of people who had recently been revived by either police or fire crews in the city. Their goal each day is to locate as many of those people as possible and have a real conversation with them about their options for addiction treatment or other social services.

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“Just saying, ‘Here, call this number’ doesn’t really work,” Dunkin said. They are sometimes accompanied by a peer supporter — someone who is in recovery from addiction and can talk to the person in need on the level of having been where they are now.

As word has spread about the team’s work, they’ve also started to get referrals from homeless shelters, hospitals and other sources.

“If we run into somebody that says, ‘Yes, I want help,’ we just kind of drop everything we had planned for that day and help them,” Olson said. They can spend hours making phone calls to connect that person with the right treatment services and then arranging or providing transportation.

Later that day, Olson and Dunkin responded to an overdose in progress: a 38-year-old man face down on the sidewalk at a gas station on Keowee Street. A passing firefighter had stopped to help but didn’t have Narcan with him, so police cruisers arrived and revived him with 4 milligrams worth.

He thanked the first responders for saving his life, but declined a trip to the hospital and walked back toward his hotel room.

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Before he left, Olson and Dunkin spoke with the man and his companion, whom they’d encountered before. They handed out cards with their cell phone numbers, and put them on the list for a future door knock.

Dunkin said it can be frustrating to still see some people over and over again on their list of follow-ups, but they don’t give up or pass over that address.

She spent a good deal of time on the phone the same morning with a woman who was concerned for her brother’s safety. They talked through all the places he sometimes stays and Dunkin took notes so they could try and locate him.

Dunkin told the woman she understood what the family was going through. She lost her younger brother to a fentanyl overdose in 2014.

“It was quite a shock to our family,” she said. “I like to let other family members, when we are speaking to them, let them know that I understand … let them know that they’re not alone. Even if they feel like they have no one else, they can call me.”

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The team didn’t have much luck locating people on their list the day we rode along, and didn’t have anyone agree to be connected with treatment. Some days are full of wrong addresses or no answers, they said. But Dunkin and Olson say sometimes they get that call for help when they least expect it.

On a recent drive down Wayne Avenue the pair pulled up to a panhandler who they’d tried to get into treatment in the past. When Olson rolled down his window to say hello the man immediately said, “I’m ready.”

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