“All politics is local,” former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said. The truism also applies to epidemics. In one way or another, the rampaging opioid crisis impacts every state, town, and neighborhood. Federal authorities labelled it “The Crisis Next Door” for good reason. Citizens appalled by the resulting loss of life take action, at times even on a “do-it-yourself” basis. They raise their voices to generate awareness and spread their concern.
Epicenter of the Opioid Crisis
One of these local heroes is a young librarian from one of Philadelphia’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, Kensington. Another is the newspaperman who told her story, and those of others in their drug-ridden community. It’s worth noting Chera Kowalski of the McPherson Branch of the Free Public Library and columnist Mike Newall of the Philadelphia Inquirer each make their living by providing information. An informed public is essential in a democratic society, especially in public health matters. According to well-known Christian scripture, ” . . . [Y]ou will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Unfortunately for Kensington, that its heroin is pure and affordable is well known. As Mike Newall told National Public Radio:
[Kensington is] a neighborhood that has been long underserved and long suffering with deep poverty, with drugs. The park there is right now in the center of the city’s opioid epidemic. And we don’t want to have a reputation for having the purest and cheapest heroin, but sadly, I think we do.
So-called “drug tourists” from out of state put the neighborhood on the map. As the opioid crisis worsened, local parents told their children to avoid the grass of Kensington’s McPherson Square. Infamously known as “Needle Park,” discarded hypodermic needles litter the recreational area. Innocent feet are occasionally pricked, right through the soles of their shoes.
From late spring into summer 2017, the opioid crisis in Kensington was out of control. Newall’s columns made Kowalski famous for charging into neighboring Needle Park (or into her library’s bathrooms) to administer Narcan to overdosed heroin users. While opioids can shut down respiration, Narcan nasal spray can literally restore the breath of life.
With the national media attention provided to the lifesaving librarian came an eventual increase in police presence in Needle Park. Drug tourists dispersed. Kowalski’s Narcan stayed in its case for months. Chera and her crusading columnist made a difference in their neighborhood. Like the fire department of Manchester, New Hampshire, Chera humbly said her lifesaving efforts against the opioid crisis are but an extension of her broader public service mission:
SCOTT SIMON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO HOST: And I gather the librarians there have been obliged to [ . . . ] become involved in a way librarians aren’t usually asked to become involved.
KOWALSKI: The way I’ve always thought of libraries are [as] a responsive space that responds to the community needs . . . [T]he situation that we’re in one of the needs are we have to help people who may be engaging in behaviors not many are comfortable with . . . [W]hen someone’s overdosing, that’s a need . . . and utilizing Narcan, it gives them a second chance.
NPR host Simon asked Kowalski and Newall what measures they thought should be taken, both locally and nationally to cope with the opioid crisis. Mike said outreach workers should “talk to these folks” in the hopes they could “pull them into treatment.” Chera advocated more Narcan training so others could save lives just as she had done. Kowalski also said:
I really believe we need to dramatically change the way we treat addiction. We need to continue to destigmatize mental health and addiction as well.
Each of our Philly heroes also have personal reasons for their present concern. Like so many do today, in years past Chera and Mike both suffered alongside family members who struggled with substance use disorder. These memories serve as motivators, as they understand all too well addiction’s horrible toll.
Kowalski’s parents have been in recovery for over 20 years. Newall’s older brother John died from a heroin overdose in 1999, at age 34. That Mike’s own parents spoke to him about John’s death for publication was itself a kind of heroic act. “If it saves one life,” Newall’s parents said, explaining their consent to let the public peer into their family’s emotional “open wound.”
For his own part, Mike Newall wrote:
Each time Chera Kowalski saved someone’s life in front of me, I thought of my brother. Each time I saw her bang open the library doors and race out to the grass, I wished my brother had been on that lawn.
Everyone who suffers from substance use disorder needs a hero like Chera. Someone who recognizes that they are, like Mike said of John Newall, “so much more than his disease.” Each addict needs a personal champion (or team of champions) who sees they are more than a mere statistic.
As Kowalski suggested, stigma fuels the opioid crisis, and hinders prevention and treatment efforts. That is why we need people of empathy and understanding like Chera Kowalski and Mike Newall to distribute — to push — the purest substance of all: the truth.
Truth is stigma’s antidote.