From rescue to recovery: OD patients get help they need

It's becoming a familiar saga in New Jersey: An addict overdoses on heroin or a prescription painkiller and is saved by an EMT or a cop using the rescue drug Narcan. But, sadly, many of those who are saved turn around and go back to using.

Yet there is hope for an end to this vicious cycle: A new program brings recovering substance abusers into hospital emergency rooms to counsel overdose patients — helping hundreds to get clean in an effort that is rapidly expanding.

Unlike physicians, nurses or social workers, recovery "specialists" can share a personal narrative of a wrenching addiction that robbed them of families, jobs, homes, freedom and dignity — and of how they reclaimed their lives.

“The peer-to-peer recovery is one of the biggest advances in the management of addiction and overdose that we’ve had in this country,’’ said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, chairman of emergency medicine at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, which says it treats an overdose patient once a day, on average.

EMS crews and police throughout New Jersey have saved nearly 20,000 lives in the last three years by administering Narcan to people who had overdosed on heroin or prescription painkillers, state data show.

That’s 23 people a day this year — parents, college students and long-time addicts who were on the brink of death. So far this month, those saved in Bergen County include a 53-year-old Upper Saddle River woman, a 41-year-old Lyndhurst man and a 49-year-old Elmwood Park man, bringing the total this year to 164, according to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office.

As the scourge continues, the roster of fatalities will grow beyond the more than 2,000 reported statewide from January 2014 through June 2015, the most recent state data available.

“We see them every day at the food store, at the bank, and you never realize what secrets and demons they’re dealing with," Rosenberg said. “The only ones who can talk to them and open them up to hear those demons are the people here," he said, referring to the recovery specialists.

At St. Joseph’s, 54 percent of the 217 patients approached by recovery specialists from April through September are getting help — admitted to residential treatment or participating in intensive outpatient therapy or a 12-step program, said Michael Santillo, director of integrated care services at Eva’s Village, a network of shelters, rehab and other services in Paterson that trains and provides the specialists.

The program is set to expand to St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic and Chilton Memorial Hospital in Pequannock, Santillo said.

Increasingly, the newer, stronger heroin is claiming a different population than in prior decades: It’s more suburban, users are typically in their 30s and 40s, and they are more likely to consume at home, experts say. It is also commonly laced with the potent painkiller Fentanyl, which is increasing overdose rates.