“Hey just wanted to say thanks. If it wasn’t for you telling me your story, I would not have got help. I don’t trust no one, never have, but I could see in your eyes you really wanted to help me. U straight saved my life, and I will be forever grateful for u.”
In Beaufort County in 2020, there were 30 drug overdose fatalities related to opioids, and 254 drug overdose hospitalizations. The individual quoted above, whose identity was not revealed, was one of 29 county residents who were helped recently by the Beaufort County First Responders Project that began Oct. 1, 2021.
It’s just one of several notes passed to the team members who helped survivors following a life-threatening drug overdose.
“This program was created to help curb opiate use and opiate overdoses in our communities and Beaufort County,” said team member Tony “Pops” Roberts, a former paramedic in Virginia who now also runs with the Lady’s Island-St. Helena Fire District. “More people in the state of South Carolina last year died from drug overdoses then they did from automobile accidents.”
In 2015, 550 South Carolinians died from a drug overdose that listed a prescription opioid on the death certificate. There were 977 traffic fatalities, per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In 2020, 1,734 South Carolinians died from a drug overdose; there were 1,066 traffic fatalities. Of those 1,734 drug deaths, 1,400 were related to opioids and 1,100 involved fentanyl, according to the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.
The numbers are stark warnings about the dangers and increasing prevalence of drug use and abuse. And those suffering from addiction are everywhere and anyone.
“This is an epidemic that has touched people in all walks of life. It doesn’t matter what your income is. It doesn’t matter what your social background is,” said Roberts. “I can tell you that it reaches and touches everybody. And when I say everybody, it’s touched housewives, it’s touched professional men. It could be your neighbor, boss, child, husband, wife, best friend, and you don’t know because they’re very good at hiding it.”
While the most common age group being affected by overdoses is ages 15 to 24, drug overdose victims could be any age, including senior citizens who are affected most often because of pain killers they are prescribed following a major surgery.
“What will happen is a senior citizen might take their medication at 7 a.m., and unfortunately forget that they took that medication, so they take it again at 9 a.m. Now we’re dealing with an overdose and a possible fatality,” Roberts said.
The dangers of opioids are not limited to those drugs with a legitimate use. Many opioids are manufactured illegally by drug dealers who are lacing the pills with fentanyl.
“Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is produced under strict guidelines. That’s not the case with the pills produced in someone’s basement.
“Unfortunately, there’s no exact science to that. I like to use the cliche of mixing a chocolate chip cookie,” Roberts said. “If you mix a chocolate chip cookie, you’re not going to have the same amount of chocolate chips on one cookie as you do another. It’s the same process when they’re putting these pills together in the basement of their house. … There might be 50 of those pills that kill 50 people, but the rest of the crowd is okay.”
In Beaufort County, following a 911 call to a drug overdose and providing medical services, and after the individual has returned home, a team from the First Responders Project schedules a follow up with both the survivor and the family. Teams are composed of one paramedic and one peer specialist – an individual who was once an addict and has been in recovery for several years.
“We are actively involved in counseling the survivors and their families, while trying to get them into some type of active recovery program to help improve their lives and the lives of their families,” Roberts said.
Out of the 29 survivors contacted by the teams, nine are currently in treatment programs, said Margo Weeks, Project Coordinator, Beaufort County Emergency Medical Services. ?????
“That doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s a pretty good ratio, given the recidivism of those who suffer from the disease of addiction. We also served 31 family members of those who had suffered an overdose. We try to find out what they need, what they’re suffering with, and how they need support,” Weeks said. “Is the family going down the tube some way? Do they need food? Are they getting kicked out of housing? We try to remove the barriers to getting the family healthy again.”
Roberts said families go through a lot they do not understand with the addict. It’s important for the family members to also get taken care of, learn what is happening with their family member, and get up to speed with what the program offers.
“We can’t help the person that’s going into recovery without helping their support system, and their support system is their family. Many times, we run into a situation where, quite frankly, if the person’s been chemically dependent for any period of time, then the family starts to lose patience,” Roberts said.
One of the things each team does on a follow-up visit is conduct a health check on the survivor. It’s not just about providing emotional and other support, but checking vital signs such as blood pressure, pulse and heart rates.
“We just do a general checkup. We are by no means doctors, but we are medically trained first responders, and we know what to look for in that particular field. There have been instances that we will go out to do a follow up, and quite frankly, the person isn’t in a good way,” Roberts said. “They’ve been released from the hospital because the hospital says ‘You’re good.’ Then unfortunately, they come home, and when you’re coming down off opiates or any type of drug like that, the withdrawal is extremely, extremely terrible. I mean, the withdrawal itself can kill you.”
Meeting with those people who have survived drug overdoses and their families is not the only function of the Beaufort County First Responders Project. Project team members have conducted outreach meetings with more than three dozen county agencies and organizations, from nonprofits and law enforcement to health agencies and senior centers.
There have been more than two dozen training and distribution sessions held for Narcan, CPR, Stop the Bleed and Stigma – an effort to remove the stigma or seeking treatment before a personal crisis places an individual at risk or a legal situation requires entering a program. Team members are regular attendees at the Beaufort and Bluffton farmers’ markets.
“We’re in the schools, community organizations, churches and things like that, to explain to people what opiate use is about, what opioid overdoses are about, and that we have avenues for them to be able to obtain Narcan so they have it on hand should they run into something like this,” Roberts said.
Narcan is the commercial name for Naloxone, a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Naloxone was patented in 1961 and approved for opioid overdose in the United States in 1971.
Naloxone can quickly restore normal breathing to a person if their breathing has slowed or stopped because of an opioid overdose. Effects begin within two minutes when given intravenously, and within five minutes when injected into a muscle. Narcan, or Naloxone, commonly blocks the effects of opioids for 30 to 90 minutes, giving the individual more time to get emergency medical treatment.
Narcan is so effective and critical that it is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines and is listed as a specific antidote for poisoning.
Project personnel include support specialists, a paramedic, two firefighters and a project coordinator, and leadership from each of the agencies they work for as well as partners on the advisory council from the coroner’s office and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
“They make decisions on the broader stroke items to keep the project going – things like making a decision about the standard operating procedures, who we engage with when we vet locations with the sheriff’s office before heading to a survivor, and purchasing body armor for the teams. It’s very serious,” said Weeks.
The project is funded through Sept. 30, 2025, through a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.
“By that time, we hope to have it sustainable in the community, and have community and county agencies able to help fund the whole program,” Weeks said. “This is a big deal for this community, and we’re trying to get the word out.”
To find out more or to request training for your group, club, community or business, contact Weeks at 843-255-6023.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.