During opioid crisis, regular citizens are saving lives

It was 8:30 in the morning and the young man parked in the Mercedes SUV was already dead.

He had an iced coffee from Starbucks in his lap. He wasn’t breathing. His lips were blue.

Luckily, he picked a good place to die: right in front of Ira Katz’s pharmacy.

Katz, alerted by a passerby, ran out of his pharmacy, yanked open the car door and saw the marks on the young man’s arm. He shook the unconscious man, slapped him, and pried open his eyelids: The pupils were rolled out of sight.

Desiree Cross, Katz’s assistant at the Little Five Points Pharmacy, was close behind, with a 4 milligram one-use bottle of Narcan nasal spray. Katz slid the nozzle into the young man’s nose and pushed the plunger home. Then, ignoring the urine-soaked pants, he and Cross lifted the man out of the SUV, placed him on his back in the parking lot and began taking turns giving him CPR.

“I didn’t glove up. I didn’t think of any of that stuff,” Katz said later. “I wasn’t looking for drug paraphernalia. I was looking to save a kid.”

Katz, 64, represents the new bulwark against the opioid crisis. Sixty-three thousand Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most of them from opioids. In Georgia, there were 1,394 overdose deaths that year.

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Police departments and emergency medical technicians have been using the anti-overdose drug Narcan for years to reverse overdoses, but EMTs can’t be everywhere. Regular people need to be ready to save lives.

“It’s friends, it’s neighbors, it’s parents,” who need to join the lines of defense, said Katz. Less than a week after Katz saved a young man’s life, Cross did the same thing, in the same parking lot. This user, a man in his 40s, required more than one dose. “His face was completely blue,” said Cross.

Katz, who has owned the Little Five Points Pharmacy for 37 years, is working to recruit others to the effort. He's joined by Andy Gish, an emergency room nurse who volunteers with Georgia Overdose Prevention and the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition. In 2014 she helped convince Georgia lawmakers to offer immunity to overdose victims (and friends) who call 911, and through her volunteer work helps provide low-cost or free Narcan to those who might need it.

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Her group, Georgia Overdose Prevention, has trained hundreds of people to administer the drug and is responsible for at least 1,347 lifesaving reversals. (Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition also works to reduce disease transmission by staging regular needle exchanges.) On July 5, Gish will train a group of business owners and bar managers in Little Five Points to learn how to use Narcan.

Who might need it? It could be anyone, said Clove Bovee, a Little Five Points optician who has intervened twice in different overdose situations. The question is, who is willing?

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“It’s kind of like being the person sitting in the exit row of an airplane,” she said, “making an active choice to take responsibility, in case it is required.”

Noelle Watrin made that choice. The manager of a coffee shop at the time, she occasionally saw customers nodding off. Sometimes she found paraphernalia behind the store. Last year, she saw a note from Gish in the online community group Next Door. Gish was offering Narcan kits and training. Watrin decided to get a kit. A week later, a customer passed out in the coffee shop’s bathroom.

There are three ways to administer Narcan: with a nasal spray, a syringe and a self-injector. Watrin had a vial of the drug and a syringe.

She had never used a syringe before, but the 911 dispatcher talked her through it. “I sat on the floor and rolled up his shirt sleeve,” she said. As she administered the intra-muscular injection and the 20-something man opened his eyes, the police arrived.

In that case, as in others discussed by the lifesavers in this article, the drug user was not prosecuted. Katz said Narcan would have no harmful effect if it was used on an individual who wasn’t using opioids.

On that day last month when Ira Katz intervened, Sheri Mann Stewart happened to be in his pharmacy. A woman threw open the door and shouted that there was an unconscious teenage boy in the SUV outside. Stewart, a filmmaker, is the mother of two young men, and the question threw her for a loop. “I thought, ‘Wait — is my son with me? Is he in the car?’”

The overdose victim even looked a little like her son.

After Katz and Cross brought the young man around, the emergency vehicles arrived and took him off to the hospital. “As I drove home after that, I was still feeling so emotional,” said Stewart. “What kept running through my mind was, ‘Wow, this really could be anyone’s son.’”

Stewart decided to get involved. She’s going to acquire some Narcan, and plans to organize a training session in her Lake Claire neighborhood. Katz’s heroism has inspired her to take the crisis seriously, to be ready to perform a reversal of her own.

After all, it was the heroes next door who rescued this young man.

“The only reason he’s alive,” said Stewart, “is because the people who were there, on-site, saved him.”


Anyone can get a free Narcan kit from Georgia Overdose Prevention, at georgiaoverdoseprevention.org. Those who want to support the nonprofit lifesaving organization can also make donations at the website.

The Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition works to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C and promote healthier communities through health education programs and needle exchanges. Information at atlantaharmreduction.org.