Chesterton Tribune

The risky business of shooting heroin

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On average one person per month has died over the last year in the Emergency Department at Porter Memorial Hospital from a heroin overdose.

Another four or five people per month are treated there for non-fatal heroin overdoses.

And “a good majority” of these cases, according to Dr. Robert Brunk II, who specializes in emergency medicine at PMH, are probably the result of unusually pure batches of heroin coming from Chicago. By the time heroin reaches the street, he says, it’s usually been “stepped on”—mixed with milk sugar or talcum—until it’s no more than 5 to 7 percent pure. But recently Chicago heroin has been finding its way into the veins of kids with a purity as high as 35 percent.

It may as well be poison.

Addicts accustomed to a certain hit can’t possibly tell the difference between their regular dosage and a hot shot. “You’d need a fairly sophisticated analytical lab to know what it’s purity is,” Brunk says. Once they go into respiratory arrest—as they will, if they’ve fixed the concentrated stuff—they have between three and four minutes before the onset of brain death. “Within another two to three minutes they are brain dead.”

Overdose, of course, is only one of the risks entertained by kids when they play Russian roulette with heroin. The dealers don’t always cut their product with such benign filler as talcum. They’ve been known to use arsenic, Brunk says. “And you have no idea how clean the lab was that they made it in.”

The risks posed by dirty needles are much better publicized. “If shooting heroin doesn’t kill you by overdose it will kill you by hepatitis or AIDS,” he says. “Or by an infection in the brain or the heart muscle. . . . If you’re unfortunate enough to take a hit five to seven times stronger than the one you’re used to, it will kill you immediately. If you keep using it, it will kill you slow. But it will kill you. And it will be a very, very horrible death.”

Brunk recalls one addict treated for an infection in the sack around her heart caused by dirty needles. Treated twice. “Didn’t even learn the first time,” he says. “She spent a long time in the ICU, then got out and did it again.”

Kids are hardly stupid and they’re certainly not ignorant. By the time they’re in middle school, we like to think, they’ve been exposed to enough anti-drug education to scare them silly. If nothing else, the grapevine keeps them abreast of the latest casualties: that girl they found dead in a snowbank, that guy that got dumped at the ER.

So why aren’t they scared? They know the risks. Yet still they take them.

Addicts themselves have little choice in the matter, Brunk says. “You’re dealing with a very addictive drug,” and short of a long-term rehabilitation program and radical lifestyle changes few addicts have the will to kick the habit.

The recreational samplers are another matter entirely, the ones who have yet to flirt with heroin. Or cocaine. Or methamphetamine. Brunk attributes their willingness to give it a shot to their illusions of invulnerability. “This is an age group that thinks nothing is ever going to happen to them,” he says. Brunk is right too.

Still, nearly all kids consider themselves immortal but not every kid chooses to test that proposition by sticking a needle in his arm.

Some kids like to take risks.

Some kids are sensation seekers.


Posted 6/21/2002