CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The numbers of overdoses attributed to opioids are on the rise across Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley County.
Deaths from opioids now exceed death by murder, according to the latest state health department data. First-responders on the front lines are witnessing the uptick in calls for help first hand.
"I went to this guy twice in a two-hour period," Derrick Washington, a Dorchester EMS paramedic, said. "We actually transported him to the hospital…got some Narcan in him." Two hours later, we get the call out to the same address, same guy, same results."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 91 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, which includes prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone as well as heroin. In South Carolina, the latest data available from the state department of health indicates the number of opioid related deaths in 2015 numbered 594 while the number of murders totaled 433 that same year.
Washington estimates 1 in 5 calls Dorchester EMS receives are overdose or overdose-related medical emergencies, with overdoses occurring across all age groups.
"They take one. 'Oh I feel pretty good.' They think about taking another one," Washington said. "That's when they run into trouble."
It's a battle that Walter Brown knows all too well. A veteran and longtime baseball player, Brown has had multiple knee surgeries, which includes a painful recovery process--and lots of pills.
"I didn't even know you could get addicted to pain pills back then," Brown said of first taking pain medications post-surgery in the 70's. "It wasn't the doctors' fault because I'm the one that took it, but they'd give you buckets full of pain pills, controlled substances...Percodan or Demerol. Basically whatever you wanted once they were sure you were hurt," Brown said. "It wasn't illegal drugs so I was doing what the doctors prescribed so it wasn't wrong, it wasn't addiction."
Brown is now part of a recovery program at Charleston Center, which is operated by Charleston County. He now receives methadone and supportive counseling as part of the clinic. But he's had close calls.
"Two or three times I've been laid out, passed out and didn't know the extent of it," Brown said. "I know I was going out and they rushed me to the emergency room and ended up in intensive care and they had to give me the Narcan."
Because Narcan is used for suspected opioid overdoses, law enforcement and the state department of health track EMS use of Narcan to determine drug trouble spots. Since 2015, Narcan use across the Tricounty has continued.
According to state department of health data, EMS gave Narcan to 62 percent more people in Dorchester County last year than 2015 (117 vs. 189) while
Charleston County EMS' use of Narcan increased 59 percent (262 to 417). Berkeley County saw the biggest spike in EMS Narcan use from 39 in 2015 to
229 last year, a 487 percent increase.
Washington said Narcan often becomes the first drug he turns to when EMS receives a call for an unconscious patient or breathing difficulties.
"It's the first drug just the first drug we have to consider these days," Washington said. "Because that's more likely the cause of the issues is an overdose."
Dr. Preston Wendell, MD FACEP, with Trident Health's Emergency Department is also seeing the uptick.
"We're getting shocked by some of the statistics and some of the stories," Dr. Wendell said, adding a new conversation about opioids and prescription methods is being had among doctors. "This opioid crisis is affecting everybody. I'm sure every parent has a conversation with their teenager or 20-year-old about going out and driving and being safe. But how many are having conversations about how a medicine that may be in their medicine cabinet could be the thing that kills their child?"
According to the state department of health, doctors prescribed 5.2 million opioid prescriptions last year with a population of 4.9 million. Even when legitimately prescribed, Dr. Wendell said doctors are seeing the long-term downsides of opioids outweigh the short-term benefit of pain control.
Narcan can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, but there's no guarantee it will work or that every first responder carries it. State data shows police and fire departments often beat EMS to a scene by as much as five minutes.
While City of Charleston Police, Mount Pleasant Fire Rescue and St. Johns Fire Rescue do carry the lifesaving drug, not every department does. Pharmacies such as CVS now offer those living in South Carolina an alternative, selling Narcan in-store without a prescription.
"Sometimes you'll see caregivers if they suspect someone in their family could potentially have a crisis," CVS Pharmacist Lindsay Stang said. "It's really something that anyone could have on hand."
CVS also sells pill cap timers to help patients better track pills and daily dosage.
"It doesn't have to be the elderly," Stang said, adding people like busy moms might see the advantage. "You're running around busy getting the kids ready for school and you can notice you didn't take."
The timer, which has to be reset when opened, can also help monitor whether someone besides the patient had access to the prescription.
"I don't believe in stealing but I stole pills from a friend," Brown said. "And I knew then. Something's wrong here."
Brown now visits the Charleston Center's recovery program daily, where he's treated with methadone and supportive counseling and hopes to warn others of the dangers.
"That simple act of a broken arm can ruin your life," Brown said. "It can ruin your life and put you on a train that won't stop."