Part Two: Meet the 'truck lady'
This is the second article in a three-part series on harm reduction in drug overdoses.
Omi, a 47-year-old heroin and cocaine addict, lived on the streets in Chicago for years. To survive, she had help.
Meet the “truck lady”
Melissa Hernandez, 39, born and raised in Chicago, describes her abusive childhood as “horrible, painful, and confusing.”
At age 12, she started using drugs, “just about everything.” Addled by drugs, abuse, and a bleak future, she couldn’t care whether she lived or died.
At 19, she had her son. She was shocked: “I can’t believe I can love somebody this much.” She quit drugs and never looked back.
Initially, she expected a life on food stamps. Then she learned only 50% of children born to non-college parents go to college. She wanted more for her son, so she enrolled in a community college and became a dental hygienist.
Still feeling restless, she went back to school. One day, her sociology professor said, “Society lacks empathy.” Melissa agreed wholeheartedly. But then the professor added, “You are the society.” Something clicked. She wanted to do more to help.
She reached out to volunteer organizations, but they couldn’t accommodate her young son. She decided to do it herself.
Friends and family chipped in. For her first trip, one person gave her $20 for gas; another gave her 20 pounds of rice; another gave her 2 bags of chickens. She cooked three traditional Puerto Rican meals: rice with pigeon peas and roasted chicken, white rice with beans and steak, pasta with ground beef – and made enough to feed 40 people.
Twice a week, after her dental hygienist job, she and her son drove around Chicago, feeding the homeless.
She noticed a disconcerting trend.
Apparently, the Puerto Rican government had been sending addicts to the States for rehab, but some of these facilities were unlicensed. Addicts, like Omi, showed up for rehab in good faith but ended up on the streets of a strange city, thousands of miles from family and friends.
The media reported her discovery. “Fast forward a few years,” as Melissa likes to say, she garnered due notice and support for the plight of addicts and her outreach program.
Melissa’s “truck” of supplies
Reliably, Melissa delivers clean supplies to addicts around the city: sterile needles, sterile water, alcohol pads, cookers (to cook the heroin/fentanyl), cotton swabs/balls, safe and clean crack pipes/stems/straws, and condoms.
Melissa tests them for HIV and hepatitis C onsite. She gives them free fentanyl test strips and Narcan—and teaches them how to use it.
Omi has hepatitis C – a bloodborne liver infection. She shot heroin and snorted cocaine with others, but because of the consistent and clean supplies, she didn’t share needles or equipment. CDC estimates that by supplying clean needles, we halve the incidence of HIV and hepatitis C.
Omi carried Narcan and fentanyl test strips, always. With free Narcan, she and her group have saved over 20 lives.
She imitated the slow, rattling snores a person dying of narcotic overdose makes. “That’s when you need to give them Narcan,” she said confidently.
She snapped her fingers, “They wake up in minutes.”
But giving Narcan is a thankless job. “They’re angry. They think I brought them off their high,” she said.
Omi tested all her drugs using fentanyl strips (it takes 2 to 3 minutes). If her drugs were adulterated with fentanyl (currently the No. 1 cause of drug overdose), she could use less, use it slower, or make sure somebody with Narcan was nearby.
Trust Melissa, trust herself
Omi smiled broadly and called Melissa “a beautiful person.”
All these years, she’s adhered to Melissa’s advice: Always have Narcan, use clean needles, test each drug using fentanyl strips.
Also, she’s believed Melissa’s promise: “I was a drug addict. I’ve been sober for twenty years. I did it. You can, too.”