Steve Kamenicky, known on the street as “Ponytail Steve,” is fully aware of the harsh truths about the opioid epidemic having been a heroin addict for four decades. Now that he’s kicked the habit, he helps addicts gain access to a drug called naloxone.
For those addicted to heroin or other opiates, naloxone can mean the difference between life and death.
When someone overdoses on an opioid, their breathing slows down or stops. But naloxone, which is also known as Narcan, blocks the effects of the opiate and actually reverses the overdose. Naloxone can be administered in a number of ways, such as a nasal spray or the more common method of injecting the drug into the thigh, arm, or buttocks.
But while awareness and access to the drug is becoming more common among police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and addicts, the number of fatal overdoses in the Chicago region continues to grow, illustrating that naloxone alone may not be enough to combat the surge in overdoses.
This week, Morning Shift is talking to people who are on the frontlines of the opioid crisis on a daily basis.
One of those people is Kamenicky. WBEZ spent a day at his home as he explained the drug to addicts who visited him.
Kamenicky was finally able to quit for good a few years ago after the death of his wife,who passed away due to medical complications from her own addiction to heroin. Between his wife’s death and the fact that he himself had been “brought back” to life half a dozen times from accidental overdoses, Kamenicky decided to work for the social service agency Chicago Recovery Alliance, which gives out naloxone and teaches addicts how to use it in the event of an overdose.
Kamenicky’s small apartment in west suburban Northlake is neat and tidy. You’d never think that his steady stream of guests are heroin addicts looking for the supplies that can keep them safe from diseases and accidental overdoses. The shelf of his bedroom closet is stacked with boxes that include needles of various gauges, wipes, swabs, and naloxone.
The size of a box of Tic Tacs, this little device could save someone’s life. It’s called the Evzio auto-injector. It’s a one-shot, easy-to-use gadget that shoots the proper dose of naloxone directly into someone who has overdosed. When it was first approved in 1971, it cost around $500, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now with the opioid crisis in full effect, prices have risen to more than $2,000, the CDC says. That’s despite the fact that the drug itself costs very little, and a standard Naloxone kit only costs around $40, Kamenicky says.
Pictured above is one of the many people who visits Kamenicky for clean needles, syringes, and the accompanying paraphernalia needed to inject heroin.
His right hand was severely injured in a work-related accident. After several surgeries, doctors gave him opioid-based painkillers. When the prescriptions ran out, he was still in pain and found himself addicted to the drugs. So he turned to something he could get more readily — heroin.
Kamenicky breaks down the proper handling and use of a naloxone kit to his visitor. By his own count, Kamenicky has “brought back” about a hundred people who have overdosed over the years.
“The brain can only be deprived of oxygen for a few minutes before it all starts to shut down permanently,” he says, adding that’s why it’s crucial that addicts not inject alone, know how to keep as calm as possible, and administer the naloxone quickly.
Kamenicky bags up the supplies for his guest, which will last about a month. He then enters some basic information into a special app on his phone. Initials, date of birth, and mother’s first name are some of the ways that Kamenicky can keep track of who visits him, how often, and what he gives them without the person needing to give out their full identity.
Jason Marck is a producer for WBEZ’s Morning Shift. You can follow him at @jasonmarck.