Overdose Response Technicians attempt to save lives

The office of the Opioid Response Team is filled with whiteboards detailing their work. Photo by Gino De Angelis.

By Gino De Angelis

In the opioid epidemic, former addicts can be a lifeline for those still struggling.

Cameron Breen was a user in Waterbury, who has been four years sober and now works as an Opioid Response Technician with the Waterbury Department of Health, helping those that are currently addicted to get the help they need.

“I was lucky enough to be placed in this position to help others,” Breen said. He emphasized that he is actively in recovery, and this helps make an immediate connection with those going through an overdose.

“My responsibility in this position is, no matter how many times it takes for someone to get sober, including myself, I want to be there and treat the person with the same respect that I was treated with, or maybe I wasn’t,” Breen said.

The job of ORTs is to respond in real time alongside other first responders. The program, which began last August, has technicians that are there to provide the person going through the medical emergency with resources and support, in order to get them into recovery.

Rushnee Vereen is the other ORT with the city. She is also trained as a Recovery Support Specialist. 

“Usually either on scene or at the hospital, depending on the alertness of the individual, we explain what we do, we connect individuals to care,” Vereen said. “That can mean detox, inpatient, outpatient, medically assisted treatment, it can be comprised of many different things.”

Both Breen and Vereen say that, while many people will want to go into treatment right away, others will refuse. This is why the ORTs have implemented a “Five Touches” system, where they will followup with people five times within the first month after the overdose. They also emphasized that they will alway be available to speak even after that month, if the person wants to go into treatment at a later time.

“There was an individual back in August, who overdosed in an abandoned building and he came out covered in soot,” Breen said. “I didn’t have much contact with him and about six months later, he reached out to me and he said that he needed help and that he felt like I was the only person he could talk to.”

Breen recalled another story where he responded to an overdose of a young woman who he stayed in contact with for a considerable amount of time and helped get into a detox program in Danbury. He said that she sent him a message four months after her overdose where she said she was now 90 days sober. 

“I want to write down stories like these in a little notebook for the days it gets hard here,” Breen said.

Not all stories result in a complete recovery, but there is still hope to be found in them, according to the ORTs. Vereen described her first case, which dealt with a man she called her superhero.

“He never threw in the towel, even though multiple attempts where made to get him into facilities and he was rejected, he was always willing to go,” Vereen said. “And he had a lot of barriers: he didn’t have a phone, he was a high emergency department user.”

Vereen said that she collaborated with police and hospital staff to get this man into a facility. When he was finally brought into Waterbury Hospital, another major medical issue was found, and though this eventually led to his death, Vereen said that he was cared for and made comfortable at the end of his life.

“It brought family members to him, he was able to make peace with his loved ones,” Vereen said. “When he did pass, he was surrounded by love, family, he was being cared for. For me, he is one of many success stories.”

Both Breen and Vereen said they are constantly in contact with many users in recovery, while continuing to meet new people who need help on a weekly basis. 

A dose of Narcan, used to save the lives of individuals going through an overdose. Photo by Gino De Angelis

The challenge of getting users into recovery isn’t the only thing that the ORTs have had to deal with. The program works very closely with the city’s police department, and officers were hesitant to accept them immediately.

Waterbury Police Lt. Michael Stokes acts as the Crisis Intervention Coordinator between the police department and the Waterbury Department of Health. He has worked since the beginning to make sure that the two elements collaborate with each other efficiently.

“I wouldn’t say 100% of people were on board when we were starting this new program,” Stokes said. “Having recovery coaches go out to calls and work side by side with the Police Department, but I’d say we’re close to 100%.”

Stokes said that his main job when the program first started out was getting buy-in from the officers for the ORTs because he was an active and trusted member of the department, as well as getting officers to reassess how they saw those addicted to substances.

“Throw those old terms away, ‘That person’s a loser, that person’s a junkie.’ Start thinking, ‘That’s somebody’s mother, that’s somebody’s father, that’s somebody’s brother, that’s somebody’s sister,’ that’s a human being,” Stokes said. “They deserve a second chance at life just like any of us would want a second chance.”

Stokes said that what’s been helpful for everyone in the program is seeing that, in such a short time, that many people have been helped and are recovering, when they wouldn’t have had any hope as little as a few months ago. 

Breen said that he sees himself in many of the faces of those he responds to, and that he wants them to know that he understands exactly what they are going through.

“Somebody who was working in this same field reached out to me and asked me if I was alright, and I said no for the first time in my life,” Breen said. “They extended the hand. And all we can hope to do is extend the hand and hope that somebody reaches out and takes it.”