The number of opioid-related overdose deaths in the state of Illinois and across the country is skyrocketing, and Oak Park’s first responders and medical professionals are seeing those trends play out in real time.
Doctors at both West Suburban Medical Center and Rush Oak Park Hospital have seen substantial increases in such overdoses, and “bad batches” of heroin on the streets, often combined with powerful opioid-based pain medications like Fentanyl, have triggered waves of patients in emergency rooms.
The Illinois Department of Human Services reports that all drug-related overdose deaths in the state — 80 percent of which were caused by opioids — jumped 44.3 percent from 2013 to 2016. The total reported deaths due to all drug overdoses was 2,278 in 2016, compared to 1,579 just three years prior.
While the rate of all drug-related overdoses spiked in that three-year period, the reported 1,826 opioid-related overdose deaths grew faster, increasing more than 70 percent over the same time period.
Dr. Kip Adrian, MD, chair of the West Suburban Medical Center Emergency Department, told Wednesday Journal the hospital sees 3-5 cases a day related to heroin and opioid use.
But that number jumps dramatically to as many as 50 heroin-related patients in a week when a bad batch hits the streets, Adrian said.
“In the past few years, we’ve seen more of those spikes more often,” he said.
In the eight years Adrian has been at West Suburban, the frequency of bad batches has climbed from a few times a year to one every couple of months.
Adrian noted that the fastest growing demographic of heroin users is middle-class adolescents who “tend to graduate from prescription opioids to heroin.”
“I think the thing that’s frustrating is there certainly doesn’t seem to be nearly enough resources for treatment of opioid dependence, especially when you’re dealing with a somewhat depressed socioeconomic community that relies on Medicaid,” he said. “Those types of programs that accept that kind of insurance fill up quickly.”
About 80 percent of the hospital’s clients come from the Austin neighborhood, he said.
It’s a similar story at Rush Oak Park Hospital, where Dr. Navtej Sandhu, medical director of the Emergency Department, said he’s seen a steady increase in opioid-related patients over the last five years.
Sandhu said opioid overdose patients came in about once every other day five years ago, an average that has since roughly doubled.
Patients, particularly those who have used heroin laced with Fentanyl, also are coming in needing higher doses of Narcan — a drug that quickly reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.
“We have to give high doses of Narcan where typically small doses help reverse the overdose,” he said.
Sometimes it takes up to four shots of Narcan to reverse the overdose, he said.
“In rare circumstances we see overdoses where those shots aren’t helping,” he said. “We have to do a continuous infusion of Narcan to keep the patient from going into overdose.”
Substances like Fentanyl take a stronger hold, he said, stronger than high-powered drugs like OxyContin, Hydrocodone and Oxycodone, on receptors in the brain that respond to opioids.
The use of Narcan also is becoming more common with paramedics at the Oak Park Fire Department, according to Fire Chief Tom Ebsen, who noted the department has been tracking the administration of Narcan since 2013, when they used the anti-overdose drug about four times a month. That has almost doubled to roughly seven times a month in 2017.
Ebsen said about a third of the people administered Narcan by paramedics are Oak Park residents, compared to 67 percent who live outside the village.
Sandhu suggested that those with family members or friends who are using opioids purchase Narcan in case their loved one begins to overdose.
“Narcan is becoming more widely available to the public,” Sandhu said. “It is not difficult to have that in the house. We are starting to prescribe that from the emergency department for chronic pain patients on a lot of opiates.”