Overdose spike prompts doc to speak out

Hinsdale's Dr. Fitzgerald would like to see naloxone more readily available in town

Their deaths often are not recorded in the daily statistics tracking COVID-19 fatalities and often don't make the evening news.

But the grief is just as profound for families of the 53 people who died of an overdose in DuPage County from the start of the quarantine until the end of June.

"I have reached out to multiple rehabilitation leaders and they confirm the increase in those seeking rehabilitation, drug use relapse and instances of fatal and non-fatal overdoses in their patients and community," Dr. Richard Jorgensen, DuPage County coroner, stated in a press release issued Aug. 20.

In 2019, 46 people in DuPage County died of an overdose between Jan. 1 and June 30. That number jumped to 70 this year, a 52-percent increase.

These statistics are particularly devastating because overdose fatalities can be prevented, said Dr. Ruchi Fitzgerald of Hinsdale. As an addiction medicine specialist with the Addiction Medicine Fellowship Program at Rush University Chicago, part of her job is to educate the community about the benefits of naloxone, which is available as a nasal spray and an injection. The drug is more commonly known by its brand name, Narcan.

"I think that having naloxone available is really important, because if we do have it on hand and people are able to give that first dose and call 911, there is a chance someone can avoid an overdose," Fitzgerald said.

She praised the coroner and Hinsdale Police Chief Brian King for working together to make sure all officers carry Narcan. All members of the Hinsdale Fire Department carry it as well, King said.

"I believe that, on average, the police department administers Narcan to individuals that are overdosing up to about six times a year," he said, noting that not all those instances involve a Hinsdale resident.

Fitzgerald would like to see naloxone available in public places like the Hinsdale Public Library and private residences.

"We want to really take it to the next level and have naloxone in everyone's home - particularly if you have teenagers, if you have young adults who may be home from college living with you," she said.

A prescription is not needed to obtain Narcan, Fitzgerald notes. People can go their pharmacy, present their prescription card and obtain the drug.

"You can keep it in your home. You can keep it in your purse," Fitzgerald said. "You never know when you might use it and save someone's life."

Grant Glowiak, director of youth ministries at Union Church of Hinsdale, and Penny Johnson, director of Christian education and administration manager, both received training to use the Narcan nasal spray in April 2019 at Hinsdale Middle School. The event was conducted by the Hinsdale Fire Department in partnership with the DuPage County Health Department.

"As a church, we're planning on offering another training for folks in the community," Glowiak said, noting the surge in overdoses in the county. "We don't have that date set yet."

He sees helping those who struggle with substance use disorder as part of the church's mission.

"For us, it's a fairly straightforward expression of who we are. We are called to love God and love our neighbor - and particularly to love our neighbors whom society has deemed not worthy of love," he said.

"What better expressing of loving your neighbor is there than saving your neighbor's life?" Glowiak added. "It should not be controversial. For some reason it is."

Fitzgerald agreed that administering naloxone is not condoning drug use and said society needs to re-think how it views substance use disorder.

"This is not a character flaw. This is not a moral failing. This is an illness. This is a chronic disease," she said. "If we treat it like it's a flaw or a failing, we lose lives."

Many college kids are working remotely from home and some young adults who lost their jobs might have returned home, Fitzgerald said. They and younger siblings might be tempted to alleviate their stress and anxiety by taking a pain pill they find in their parents' medicine cabinet, possibly heading down a road toward a heroin addiction.

King reminded residents that they can drop off prescriptions and other drugs in the container at the police department, 121 Symonds Drive.

"No questions asked," he said. "That is in the police department lobby that you can get to 24 hours a day."

Police also work diligently to arrest those who are selling or distributing drugs in Hinsdale, King said, and to educate the community about the dangers of opioids and the resources available in the community.

"If a family is in crisis, we can put you in contact with competent resources," King said. "There's no shortage of competent resources here in the village. We don't want anyone to walk alone."

Fitzgerald believes residents who are informed will be willing to do what they can.

"I think that our community is always ready to help and engage in public health issues if they have the information," she said. "Even just one death in the Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills-Western Springs community is too many."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean