It's been two years since Tim Schaller witnessed a friend's opiate overdose, but the memory remains clear.

It happened at a Whitehall residence, but Schaller, 28, said those inside the home were too afraid to call for help.

"I threw cold water on his face and kept checking for a pulse," said Schaller, who considers himself blessed never to have seen a fatal overdose -- including on that day two years ago.

The man was at work the next day, Schaller said. He's alive today, but Schaller guesses he's still "repeating the cycle."

Schaller said he knows the breadth of opiate addiction, both through his own abuse and that of people he knows.

He's clean today.

"I quit. Cold turkey. It wasn't easy. You have to want it for yourself," said Schaller, while acknowledging that not every addict can succeed with a similar tack.

Knowing the struggle recovery can be, Schaller said he wants to be better prepared to save a life than he was on that day two years ago -- and to give opiate addicts the chance to find a way out from their dependence.

Schaller and his girlfriend, Ashley Tarantelli, 27, were among about 40 people who attended a community training session for administering naloxone Feb. 21 at Victory Ministries, 3964 E. Main St. in Whitehall.

Mount Carmel Health Systems, Columbus Public Health, Franklin County Public Health, Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services, and Maryhaven sponsored the community training, which included the distribution of free naloxone kits and drug-disposal bags.

"I came here tonight because I wanted to learn (how to use naloxone) so I can help save someone's life," Schaller said.

How it works

Naloxone hydrochloride is a drug that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose by competing for the same receptor sites, said Olivia Burton, injury prevention coordinator for Franklin County Public Health.

Administered via nasal syringe, it is marketed under the brand name Narcan, among others.

Steve Roth, an emergency medical technician for Mount Carmel, encourages people to learn about treating an opiate overdose in the same way many people learn CPR.

"No community is untouched (by opiate addiction and overdoses)," Roth said.

During the first 25 years of his career as a Madison Township firefighter and medic, Roth estimates he treated opiate overdoses "maybe 10 times," and usually because "Grandma took too many pills by mistake."

But that has changed.

"In the last six or seven years, it was hundreds of times ... It's an incredible epidemic," said Roth, who demonstrated how to administer naloxone at the community training.

"Everyone learns CPR and first aid, but unfortunately, now, it's (about learning) Narcan, because there are so many overdoses. It's a tool to save someone's life.

"Narcan is not going to get anyone off heroin or opiates, but it's going to give them the chance to make that decision -- it's going to give them another chance," he said.

Sometimes, people get multiple chances.

"(I've heard people say), 'How many times are you going to give (Narcan)?' ... but a young girl in one of the (previous training) classes I was at raised her hand and said, 'It took me three times,' " Roth said.

The woman told him, "But someone, by God's grace, gave me Narcan three times, and I survived," Roth recalled.

"The light went on and she got care. Sometimes, that's what it takes, you know," Roth said. "The more people we give this Narcan to, the better chance that when someone overdoses, someone else is going to have it and save that person's life."

Life-saving kits

In addition to the community training provided at Victory Ministries, Whitehall medics also work to train others.

Randy Jones, Whitehall's community paramedic, provided naloxone kits to all five buildings in the Whitehall City School District and offered training to employees.

"I worked with nurses at the schools on how to recognize the signs of opiate overdoses and how to administer naloxone," Jones said.

The kits provided to the schools were those the city's fire department received from Mount Carmel's Project DAWN, also distributed at Victory Ministries.

Project DAWN -- Deaths Avoided with Naloxone -- is an outreach program of Mount Carmel.

The kits -- which include a nasal syringe, a face mask and new tips for the syringe -- are distributed on a regular schedule at various locations throughout central Ohio. For a list of distribution times, dates and locations, visit mountcarmelhealth.com/projectdawn, email projectdawn@mchs.com or call 614-546-4200.

Burton explained the early signs of an opiate overdose at the Feb. 21 community training.

"Pinpoint pupils are a telltale sign," Burton said.

Opiates affect the part of the brain that regulates breathing, so overdoses can stop breathing, Burton said.

"Blue lips and fingernails are another sign of an opiate overdose, and the skin will feel cool and clammy to the touch," she said.

Common examples of opiates are heroin and prescription drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin, methadone, morphine and Demerol.

Naloxone, Burton cautioned, does not reverse the effects of alcohol poisoning or a cocaine overdose.

All too familiar

The symptoms of overdose are well-known to Whitehall medics.

In 2017, the city's medics responded to 89 overdoses, administering 138 doses of naloxone, Jones said.

Those figures do not include naloxone administered by police officers or residents, he said.

Figures from 2016 are not readily available for equivalent comparison to last year because Whitehall changed how it tracks data, Jones said.

Andrea Boxill, deputy director of Ohio Gov. John Kasich's Opiate Action Team, called the opiate crisis "a perfect storm" whose causes lie in the proliferation 10 years ago of opiate-based prescription painkillers. After their prices climbed beyond the affordability of many, a market for cheap heroin and other opiates flourished, she said.

Boxill described opiate addiction as "a chronic progressive disease that can lead to death" -- the same description applied to cancer and heart diseases.

"But our approach to addiction still remains that it is a moral failing or a character flaw," she said.

Boxill said she is working to change that mindset while teaming with others to provide paths out of addiction.

"We don't whisper about cancer or heart disease," she said. "We shouldn't whisper about (addiction)."

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo