WEST BRIDGEWATER, Mass. — Steve Wohlen lay on his front lawn, blue, unconscious and barely breathing, overdosing on heroin.
His mother ran outside, frantically assembling a pen-like canister. Her heart pounding, she dropped to her knees and used the device to deliver two squirts up her son’s nostrils.
Within minutes, his eyes opened, color returned to his face, and he sat up – brought back from a potentially lethal overdose by a drug commonly known by its old brand name, Narcan.
The drug, widely sold under its generic name, naloxone, counteracts the effects of heroin, OxyContin and other powerful painkillers and has been routinely used by ambulance crews and emergency rooms in the U.S. for decades. But in the past few years, public health officials across the nation have been distributing it free to addicts and their loved ones, as well as to some police and firefighters.
Such giveaways may have saved more than 10,000 lives since the first program was started in 1996 in Chicago, according to a survey by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national group that works to reduce the consequences of drug use.
Opponents say that making the antidote so easily available is an accommodation to drug use that could make addicts less likely to seek treatment. The objections are not unlike those raised decades ago when addicts were first issued clean needles to curb the spread of AIDS. But Wohlen and his mother see things differently.
“I just didn’t want to be that mother standing next to that casket,” Linda Wohlen said.