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You Have the Right To Remain

By Kristen Lewis Renner

On the eve of the Fourth of July, I was walking back to my hotel room in a boisterous Wisconsin college town on a sticky summer day when I saw an arm poking out of the passenger’s side of a truck window in the parking lot. Jerking. Spazzing out, as my 12-soon-to-be-13-year-old son would say.

Another woman — a complete stranger, ironically, named HOPE — spotted the young man at the same time as I did. We both rushed to the battered red pick-up at the same time.

“I have EMS training,” she said to me. Then, to the bearer of arm: “Dude, did you do HORSE?” (Heroin.)

Lying beside the young man on the seat was a pink rubber tourniquet and, underneath him, an empty syringe and several bills of varying denominations. He was in the throes of a grand mal seizure.

“I’m calling 911,” barked the truck’s owner, pacing the lot, leonine-like as if caged in a city-limits zoo.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

Nothing. I repeated the question.

“What’s his name, dammit?!”

“James,” he said. “James.”

“Do you have NARCAN?” Hope asked.

“Yeah, but the dispatcher said don’t use it.”

NARCAN is used to reverse the effects of heroin overdose.

Within five minutes, two police squads and two fire engines came screaming up. For a surreal moment on the holiday weekend in America’s Heartland, I was struck by the red, white and blue display of lights.

In that brief time before EMS arrives, Hope and I held his hands (and his head) and sang “Jesus Loves Me” to someone’s child. My own son’s middle name is James, after his grandfather, who was a Methodist minister and half Cherokee Indian. He taught me the words to that hymn when I was five. He passed shortly thereafter, but I still consider him my best friend of all time.

I no sooner sang the last line, “For the Bible tells me so,” than James blue-green eyes — previously rolled back in his head — sprang open as the crew arrived.

This is not an editorial about religion and the healing power of God.

This is about the value of a human life.

When the cops and the paramedics came to the truck and retrieved James from the vehicle, the EMS spent easily 10 minutes scourging the truck the truck for evidence (and collecting the money). In the 20 minutes I was on the scene, no one gave James medical attention — not even taking his vitals.

Anyone that hasn’t been living under a rock knows that the opiod epidemic and treatment for it is a key component of the current bill under contention in Congress.

Addiction, in any form, is devastating to the users and their loved ones. And it continues to be shrouded in stigma: despite the medical community’s insistence that it is a “disease,” its victims are ostracized by society and, in cases like James’, many do not receive equal treatment by those who have taken an oath to save lives.

Now it’s time to get personal. As I mentioned before, my grandfather was half Cherokee. My family has been haunted by the spectre of alcoholism for generations; “firewater” has been our undoing, and has claimed many lives.

I, myself, have sought treatment for alcohol problems on multiple occasions over the last 10 years, which began with a marriage in which I was emotionally, mentally and financially abused. I am white, college-educated (graduated magna cum laude) and diagnosed with depression and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In my experience in hospitals, while under the influence, I was told by a nurse when I asked for the third time for a glass of water, “We have people to treat who are REALLY sick here.”

On another occasion, I was put in a room in the corner of the ER with no blanket, pillow, or a call button I could access from my bed. I was there for 14 hours, during which time I had zero medical attention until five minutes before I was walking out the door (a nurse administered Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug which induces sleepiness. Not exactly a good idea when I was hitting the street moments later and had no idea what part of the city, Chicago, I was in at the time).

Many people do not realize that just like heroin, you can die from alcohol withdrawal. That is why it is important to seek medical attention in the first place — they can administer drugs during detox that will prevent seizures, DTs (Delirium Tremens), and/or a heart attack.

The incident with James has been haunting me for two weeks now, and I needed to write about it to reinforce to the American public how vitally important funding for addiction treatment is to our country. It could be your son. It could be your daughter. It could be you.

Like James and me, we all have a right to remain — to claim our independence from the shackles of addiction.

Kristen Lewis Renner is a freelance writer currently based in Chicago. She can be followed on Twitter @roxiewithmoxie.

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