Part 3: It takes a village

This is the third article in a three-part series on harm reduction in drug overdoses.

The first time we saw Omi in the free clinic, she was in the throes of a heroin withdrawal. Her face was pale and sweaty; hands swollen and quivering. She was rocking gently – pampering waves of pain and nausea.

Her sister-in-law, who found her in Chicago the day before, was crying. “She’s family. She deserves another chance.”

Omi refused to go to the ER. I understood: There’s only so much the ER could do. Our clinic manager started calling drug rehab programs. On a Friday afternoon, everything was about to close.

First problem: Omi had no valid ID.

She couldn’t apply for Medicaid; she needs an ID. Methadone clinics couldn’t accept her; they need an ID.

Ms. Hernandez, the “Truck Lady” who helped Omi in Chicago, sent a letter verifying her name and homelessness. Finally, our manager found a rehab program which would evaluate her on Monday. Our clinic promised to foot her bill until her Medicaid was approved.

After the visit, Omi vomited in the car. Her sister-in-law, who’s not an addict, scored 4 dime ($10) bags of heroin to tide her over the weekend.

On Monday, at the methadone clinic, after another 5 hours of paperwork, Omi got her first dose of methadone.

Take a drug to kick a drug

Study after study has shown drug programs are more successful if medications are added to behavioral treatment. Many drugs help opioid withdrawal and curb craving. Methadone works for Omi. She knows: Trying to self-detox, she used to buy it on the street.

Before they’re ready to quit, evidence-based harm reduction

We need to prevent drug overdose, especially from fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid adulterating street drugs.

In a 2016 CNN interview, Dr. Joan Papp, a MetroHealth ER physician, said, “We need to blanket the community with naloxone.” Opioids (heroin, morphine, fentanyl, etc.) kill by stopping our breathing. Caught on time, naloxone (Narcan) can reverse that. It saves lives.

Dr. Papp started Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone) for Cuyahoga County. Funded by the state, Project DAWN provides free naloxone and fentanyl test strips. Its program at The Centers and Circle Health Services also provides free syringes.

The monkey on our backs

In one week, Omi got to the right methadone dose. She’s not high, but she isn’t depressed or tired. She has energy.

Today, she’s been sober for over 4 months.

Sure, there are problems. She’s butting heads with her sister-in-law. She has insomnia. Anne Lamott, the author of “Traveling Mercies” and an ex-alcohol-cocaine-meth addict, said, “You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town.”

Omi works at a fast food restaurant. She’s saved money to buy a car, move to a new place, and get her son’s custody back from her brother. “When I was on drugs, I had no dreams. Now I have dreams … I want to smile,” Omi said. “I want to die clean.”

We, the village

Omi tried to quit many times before. I couldn’t help but ask, “What’s different this time?”

She said, “Y’all here for me.”

Access this article on the Observer website,, for links to resources and more information.

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Volume 13, Issue 15, Posted 9:58 AM, 08.03.2021