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Paramedic’s Corner: Preventing heroin deaths requires more education effort
Paramedic’s Corner: Preventing heroin deaths requires more education effort

Ambulance Director Gary Carmack
As humans, we do not like death and injury at any time, but it is especially difficult at holiday times. Holidays are supposed to be cheerful and about family and friends. Lately here in Pulaski County, it seems the highest cause of unnatural deaths to be motorcycle crashes and heroin overdoses. For those who do not make a study of death investigation, natural deaths always outnumber unnatural deaths, therefore I’m talking about deaths that are not from natural causes.

I want to address heroin and I wish we could get through to all kids and young folks how deadly heroin really is. In my opinion there is no other prevention strategy except education. I heard a myth the other day about some kind of deadly, supposedly poisonous and new bad heroin coming through here. I don’t know if that is true, nevertheless it doesn’t matter — heroin is just simply a very deadly drug.

The drug puts the brain to sleep. I like the famous line from Wizard of Oz, when the wicked witch wanted to put Dorothy to sleep to steal her red slippers:

“And now, my beauties, something with poison in it. Poppies…poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep. Now they’ll sleep!” — Wicked Witch of the West, the Wizard of Oz, 1939.

What is this chemical? Heroin comes from the dried juice of the poppy plant (papaver somniferum) which is an annual flower with brilliant white or red flowers. Its binomial name, loosely, means “sleep-bringing poppy.” When scratched, the poppy pod produces milky latex called opium. The latex contains opiates including codeine and morphine. Heroin is synthesized from morphine and is a mixture of the morphine and acetic acid, which is one of the components of aspirin. It is a central nervous system depressant that relieves pain, causes sleep, and produces a dreamlike state of warmth and well-being — even unto death!

How does heroin kill? Heroin kills by simply putting the brain to sleep. The heroin depresses the brain so much that the brain merely neglects sending the signal down the spinal cord to breath. Then the lungs fill up with fluid and complete respiratory and circulatory collapse occurs. It is actually the opposite of cocaine. Cocaine rarely causes death, and when it does, it is usually by a cardiac arrhythmia and happpens very quickly. By contrast, heroin is slower and is quite unpredictable. The fatal dose depends on many factors.

To actually see a heroin death is ghastly. It is seeing a human in one of the most wretched conditions that can be imagined. Far from the glamour portrayed in theater and by pushers, the heroin death is accompanied by body fluids. The lungs fill up with fluid and the person often will literally die by drowning in their own fluids. The person usually vomits and aspirates. This means the person’s own stomach contents — vomit — goes into the lungs. The person can’t breathe appropriately, turns blue and suffers paralysis during the near-death asphyxia phase, caused by this respiratory depression. It just isn’t a pretty scene.

Teach this to everyone you can — it’s all we can do.

Coming next week: Motorcycle crashes.

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