In Memory of Dan Bigg, Harm Reduction Godfather

Photo: Nigel Brunsdon

When I think of Dan Bigg, I think of Santa Claus — not a jolly, red-suited figure of lore who delivers tricycles and wooden horse rockers to children, but an edgy, swearing, fingers-in-the-air Santa Claus whose gifts were the gifts of life.

Dan was always giving gifts. He gave his time, his experience, his resources, his wisdom, his love. He was the kind of person you could call at any hour — he always picked up the phone — and despite a ridiculous work schedule, he found ways to make time for you. What do you need? How can I help? These were the questions he asked. If you just needed advice or a friendly ear, Dan was there, offering his thoughts in long-winded, rambling speeches laced with insight and peppered with curses.

The first time I met Dan at a harm reduction conference years ago, someone had whispered to me that piles of naloxone were available in the back of the room hidden under a black tablecloth. Naloxone wasn’t available to lay people yet in my home state of North Carolina, so I approached the contraband, and the large man standing next to it, with a mix of curiosity and trepidation.

“Are you allowed to give out naloxone here?” I asked him, wide-eyed.

Dan turned to me, smiled and shrugged.

Later, I learned why. That man did not give two fucks about what was allowed. He only cared about what was right.

Dan Bigg was a godfather of harm reduction in every sense of the word. He was almost ridiculously generous. If you needed something, and he had it, he would give it to you. His care packages even contained unrequested oddities, such as buttons and licorice straws, as if he just grabbed whatever was around his desk to send to those he loved.

He was a guardian angel not only to the organization he co-founded, Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA), but to states where harm reduction was still a dirty word. Not allowed to distribute naloxone? One call to Dan and he’d mobilize a national network to help you out. Running low on syringes? By Monday you’d have all the rigs you needed courtesy of Mr. Bigg. Dan wasn’t going to sit around and let people in other states die just because they didn’t have laws or funding streams as good as Chicago’s.

One time, shortly after the deadly HIV outbreak in Indiana in 2015, Dan called me to ask for help editing a document to the Indiana State Department of Public Health in which he was “recommending” that the state implement syringe exchange programs to provide clean needles to drug users. Naturally, as soon as his feet hit the ground in Indiana he was already handing out syringes, which caused quite a scuffle with the health department once they found out.

Chris Abert of the Indiana Recovery Alliance, a friend of Dan’s, recalls the humor of the situation.

“Dan had left a bunch of syringes with the Indiana health department when he went back to Chicago, but they refused to distribute them,” he says. “So I went to pick up the syringes to bring them back to our underground exchange. The authorities would not release them, so we tried again under the pretense that I was going to take them back to Chicago. They didn’t believe our story and had an Indiana State Police trooper escort me across the Illinois border. The police told me if I came back across state lines, I’d get a felony for every syringe in the truck.”

Naturally, with Dan’s blessing, once Chris crossed state lines and the police disappeared, he turned right around and drove the syringes back to Indiana, where they were distributed through an underground exchange. Chris credits Dan with the very existence of this exchange.

“Around 2014 we got started with an underground syringe exchange,” he recalls. “We were buying 100 syringes at a time out of pocket and handing them out hidden in socks…people would ask for ‘special socks’ if they wanted syringes. It wasn’t self-sustaining…At some point someone told me to call a guy named Dan Bigg for help. Dan picked up the phone right away and within five minutes he made it clear that we could come up to Chicago and get whatever we needed…We drove up, expecting he would give us a couple hundred syringes, but he let us jam the car full of supplies — we couldn’t even see out the windows. I was taken aback at how generous he was with his supplies and with his time.”

The Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition in Georgia is another beneficiary of Dan’s generosity. Dan helped keep the organization afloat when they ran out of funding for syringes. Mona Bennett of Atlanta knew Dan for 20 years. She recalls him as a great storyteller, someone fund to hang out with and shoot the shit.

“I loved being on any conference panel with him,” says Mona. “I remember one panel called Ask the Old Fogies where we just shared our harm reduction experiences with the audience. He had a great sense of humor and sarcasm.”

Across the U.S. and even globally, Dan Bigg is most known for his pioneering work in community-based naloxone access. It is not an exaggeration to say that every naloxone program in the world can trace its roots back to Dan and the CRA team’s first experiment in Chicago, the ground-breaking idea that naloxone should be given directly to the people who are most likely to use it. But the scope of Dan’s work is so much more than naloxone distribution. He was truly an “ideas man” who innovated in every avenue of harm reduction. He pioneered one of the first mobile methadone clinics in Chicago, shortened vaccination times between hepatitis A and B vaccines, helped develop the idea of substance use management, and was working on revolutionizing hepatitis C care for people who use drugs right up until the day he died on August 21, 2018.

Maya Doe-Simpkins, co-director of Harm Reduction Michigan, recalls the impact Dan made on her when they first met at a conference in New Orleans in 2004.

“I went to a session where he and his wife, Karen, were talking about their mobile methadone program,” she says. “They had this little kid with them wearing a tie-dye shirt. I remember thinking this is the first time I have been to a conference where you can bring a kid wearing a tie-dye shirt. These are my people.”

A couple years later, Maya became part of a team tasked with bringing naloxone distribution from an underground program to above-ground in Massachusetts. She and Dan spent hours on the phone discussing how to structure the program in a way that would allow access to naloxone in as rapid and widespread a manner as possible. Later, along with Eliza Wheeler, they worked to develop a national naloxone finder and to coordinate a national naloxone buying club.

“Dan was the big picture guy and Eliza and I were the closers who took care of the details,” says Maya. “He had this devil-may-care attitude that supported him [in this work]…It’s hard for me to believe we are looking at a post-Dan Bigg world right now. My emotions think he is still on vacation.”

Whatever people’s experiences or memories of Dan, they all agree that he made an impact on the harm reduction movement and on the individuals he touched that will last for generations.

“If we had a Mount Rushmore of harm reduction, Dan would be on it,” says Robert Childs, former Executive Director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. “Everyone in the harm reduction world, even people who didn’t know him, has been deeply impacted by his passing. There are literally thousands of people alive today because of the work he pioneered.”

But for many who knew Dan, the best thing about him wasn’t just his incredible contribution to the harm reduction movement, but who he was as a person and a friend.

“My loveliest memories of Dan are when we went swimming together,” recalls Robert. “We relaxed, enjoyed each other’s company and talked about our lives…I think one of the most special things about him is that he always made time for people. In this modern world, that is such a rarity.”

“[Dan] taught me how to be a decent human being, how to say the truth, fight for what is right, how to be generous with our time and supplies and knowledge, to be inviting, to make sure people who are most affected feel loved and their voices are heard,” says Chris Abert.

“The question now is how to persevere and carry on and keep fighting, meeting people where they are at and collaborating for positive change,” he adds. “That is how we will honor him. We need to honor him through actions. What will the rest of the day look like? How am I going to treat people? [Dan] is a compass for that.”

On this day, August 31st 2018, as we celebrate International Overdose Awareness Day across the globe, we honor our friend and compatriot. He was a Bigg man with a Bigg heart who leaves a Bigg legacy.