After her son was revived from a heroin overdose in Atlantic City, Elisa Ford wrote a letter thanking the police officer who used Narcan on her son that night.
Atlantic City police Officer Joe Bereheiko had never gotten any correspondence like that in all the years he had worked as a first responder in the city. He remembers the February 2015 night vividly, as Ford’s son was the first of many people he would go on to save from an overdose.
Experts say interactions between the family members of victims and first responders are becoming increasingly common as more police, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and others work to reverse opioid overdoses.
And because of that, first responders say they’ve come to better understand what people who suffer from addictions and their families are going through and put them in touch with the right agencies, professionals and programs for support.
“It’s good to hear that what we do, saving their lives, sometimes puts them over the edge, and they go into treatment or get off the streets after,” Bereheiko said. “It can be an unfortunate wake-up call for them and their families, but we have to try and help.”
Atlantic County has one of the highest number of Narcan deployments in the state, with 242 uses from January through March, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. Neighboring counties Cumberland, Cape May and Ocean all recorded 100 or less.
Atlantic City police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Fair said the department has used Narcan, also known by the opioid antidote’s generic name, naloxone, 11 times so far this year.
Ford, of Newfield, Gloucester County, said she knew little about addiction. It wasn’t until her son came to her at 19 years old, pulled up his sleeves and showed her the track marks on his arm that she was thrust into that world.
“The things I saw, what he showed me, just didn’t make sense,” she said. “I was so naive about what was going on in the communities, I missed it right in front of me. I was blown away.”
Ford said that was the beginning of her and her son’s 10-year journey with addiction. She was in denial until she was able to accept what was going on and what was within her power to help, she said, which did not include being able to “fix him.”
It wasn’t easy finding resources to help her and her son, but Ford eventually got connected with family support groups, 12-step programs, treatment centers and a therapist who specialized in helping families touched by addiction.
Tonia Ahern, Atlantic and Cape May county advocacy team coordinator for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said advocates recognized both families and first responders could benefit from programs teaching people about local addiction outreach and support services.
The NCADD chapter, in partnership with the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County, plans to host a weekly family support group and first responder training sessions starting this fall.
“Police officers have said, ‘I don’t know what to do for families. We see them struggling, but I don’t know what to do for them,’” Ahern said. “Training for police and other departments is to help them get those resources. The new class for families will provide the education piece for people to continue with support.”
Ahern, whose son has struggled with addiction, said first responders at a local event last year expressed frustration with using Narcan to revive some of the same people over and over again.
It wasn’t until Ahern spoke about how an overdose revival gave her son the chance to seek treatment and the opportunity to reach sobriety that the responders’ outlook on their actions changed, she said.
Despite reports of police officers in one Ohio county refusing to carry and administer Narcan to overdose victims, Fair said Atlantic City responders will continue to help people suffering from addiction for as long as it’s prevalent in the community.
Bereheiko said several years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to help if a parent or loved one of an overdose victim asked him about what to do.
Now, if he comes in contact with family members seeking help, he at least can put them in touch with Officer Jose Gonzalez, the Police Department’s liaison to the migrant and homeless communities, mental health agencies and addiction resources.
The relationships between agencies and first responders give Ford hope more can be done for people like her son, she said.
“This is an epidemic. People need to educate themselves,” she said. “My son is a really cool person, a great person to know. To them, he could have just been another addict, but he’s somebody. He’s my somebody, and I’m so grateful to Officer Bereheiko for saving his life.”