Opioid epidemic is so bad that librarians are learning how to treat overdoses

A crowd hovered over the man lying on the grass as his skin turned purple. Chera Kowalski crouched next to his limp body, a small syringe in her gloved hand.

Squeeze.

The antidote filled the man’s nostril.

The purple faded. Then it came back. Kowalski’s heart raced.

“We only gave him one, and he needs another!” she called to a security guard in McPherson Square Park, a tranquil patch of green in one of this city’s roughest neighborhoods.

“He’s dying,” said a bystander, piling on as tension mounted around lunchtime one recent weekday.

“Where is the ambulance?” a woman begged.

Squeeze.

Kowalski dropped the second syringe and put her palm on the man’s sternum.

Knead. Knead. Knead.

Nothing.

She switched to knuckles.

Knead. Knead. Knead.

Then a sound, like a breath. The heroin and methamphetamine overdose that had gripped the man’s body started to succumb to Kowalski’s double hit of Narcan.

With help, the man, named Jay, sat up. Paramedics arrived with oxygen and more meds.

Death, held at bay, again.

Kowalski headed back across the park, toward the century-old, cream-colored building where she works.

“She’s not a paramedic,” the guard, Sterling Davis, said later. “She’s just a teen-adult librarian — and saved six people since April. That’s a lot for a librarian.”

Libraries and a public health disaster

Long viewed as guardians of safe spaces for children, library staff members like Kowalski have begun taking on the role of first responder in drug overdoses. In at least three major cities — Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco — library employees now know, or are set to learn, how to use the drug naloxone, usually known by its brand name Narcan, to help reverse overdoses.

Their training tracks with the disastrous national rise in opioid use and an apparent uptick of overdoses in libraries, which often serve as daytime havens for homeless people and hubs of services in impoverished communities.

In the past two years, libraries in Denver, San…

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