On death’s door: The fight to save a heroin addict’s life

SEATTLE – His skin had turned gray. His breaths were shallow. His eyes rolled into the back of his head.

The 24-year-old heroin user was about to die.

“One Narcan in," a King County Sheriff’s Office deputy shouted at responding paramedics, who rushed into the alleyway near Pike Place Market.

Deputy Thomas Liu, among the first on the scene, had just administered a dose of Narcan into the young man’s nose. If used quick enough, the drug is supposed to reverse the effects of the overdose taking his life.

But, in this case, help may have come too late.

An hour before the frantic scene began to unfold, Seattle Police Officers Randy Jokela and Jason Drummond were on their regular beat. Combined, the two have patrolled downtown Seattle for nearly a half-century.

In the downtown core, heroin use is rampant.

“All day every day,” Officer Jokela said of his run-ins with users and sellers.

“I guess the sad thing is that it is getting younger,” he said. “Before, it was always the old people using heroin. Now it’s a lot of the young people. And it’s not just heroin. They’re using any drug they can get ahold of, but heroin is a big part of what they do.”

Between the two of them, Officers Jokela and Drummond have saved the lives of four people overdosing on heroin by using Narcan, also called Naloxone. They are among a number of select SPD officers who started carrying the drug in March 2016. Since then, officers have saved more than a dozen lives.

Still, the drug is controversial. Some see it as a quick-fix that acts as a safety net for drug users and ultimately condones use.

“This doesn’t condone drug use. This saves people’s lives,” Officer Drummond said. “What happens to them after that is something different than just what is here.”

Currently, the University of Washington is conducting an ongoing study of SPD’s Naloxone use to determine whether it should be deployed department-wide.

“It could be your kid. It could be your kid that’s having issues,” Officer Jokela said of controversy surrounding the drug. “You would like to have somebody that came across your child to have the ability to help them.”

Just minutes later, that sentiment became very real.

Officers Jokela and Drummond got a call on their radios about the heroin overdose in the alley – just a block and a half away, up Pine Street. A man walking through the alley drinking a beer had spotted the victim and flagged down several King County deputies.

“Supposedly he shook him a bunch of times and he wouldn’t wake up,” said Deputy Thomas Liu, who was among the first on the scene.

“We laid him down on the ground, we started rescue breaths, and I administered the Narcan.”

To a regular observer, the 24-year-old man already looked dead. His body was limp. He skin was losing color.

Paramedics loaded him onto a stretcher and into an ambulance – where he finally woke up.

There is little doubt that he cheated death.

Deputy Liu was relieved, but frustrated. It’s a situation he’s come across many times before.

“I’m glad we were here to help him get through that. Ultimately, I’d like him to get some help with his addiction, but that’s a choice, unfortunately, for him to make,” he said. “All we can do is just sort of be a Band-Aid for a larger problem.”

In the ambulance, we’re told the young man is refusing medical attention. Deputy Liu said they have no basis for an involuntary commitment, so he’s allowed to leave.

Just minutes after he nearly died – the young heroin user is on his feet and speaking with officers.

He agreed to talk to us about his addiction.

The man, 24, said he lives in Fremont and has been using heroin “on and off” for a few years.

“One thing led to another and I kept using it and it became a problem,” he said.

“It works the best,” he said of the drug. “It’s the strongest.”

He said he is close to family members who know about his addiction and have tried to help, but can’t break through. While he said he wants to quit – he turned down medical attention and resources that could have helped get him there.

We left him back in the alleyway as he set out to look for a cell phone he lost in the chaos.

This time, he got to live. Next time, he might not be as lucky.