I am going to take you back a few years to tell my story about heroin. I joined the US Navy in 1975 and was trained to be a hospital corpsmen. I spent my first year and a half working in the ICU of the Bethesda Naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. From there I was assigned to Attack Squadron-52 out of Whidbey Island, Washington and we rotated aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk CV-63 where I was assigned to the Medical Department. In the Spring, of 1979, we left San Diego, California for a West Pac cruise. During these early years in the Navy drug abuse was pretty rampant among the enlisted members of the Navy who were smoking a lot of marijuana.
During these years the Navy begun to recognize it had a drug problem. In fact, I was trained to be a Drug Abuse Exemption Representative for my squadron and if an enlisted man confessed to me he had a drug problem I could offer him a one-time exemption and he could enter into a rehab program. Despite the rampant nature of marijuana at that time no one took me up on that program.
During our time heading overseas there was not much going on. We went to Hawaii and the Philippines and from there we headed to Pattaya Beach, Thailand in the Gulf of Siam. That’s where the real trouble began. Heroin (in it’s powder form) was readily available and was supposedly quite pure (90% or >). The ship because of its size and the lack of a deep port forced us to anchor a few miles out and the sailors were transported via boats to the shore and town of Pattaya Beach where any drug you wanted was available at a local drug store without a prescription. Needless to say this led to a lot of experimentation. Heroin was also readily available on the street for a cheap price.
As a corpsmen assigned to the Medical Department I was assigned to the Medical Beach Detachment where we set up a make shift emergency room in a small hut and had IV’s and medications including Narcan. The very first night on shore a couple of guys came dragging in a buddy who was barely breathing. We got him to the table and began to administer oxygen via a Ambu bag to supplement his breathing. Unsure of what was really going on and having no doctor available we made the assumption that he had snorted some heroin. I was quickly able to start and IV and began administering Narcan to him intravenously. I would give him an ampule of Narcan and he would start to breath better and within minutes he was deteriorating back to labored minimal respirations. I gave several ampules of Narcan until he finally came around and regained consciousness and awoke to the reality of what he had done. During the remainder of that night the same thing happened 4-5 more times with other fellows brought in by their peers. Fortunately we were able to resuscitate all of the guys who had OD’d. About 2AM we were finally able to get some sleep.
We awoke the next morning and by about noon I was called to come to a house about a block away where a young sailor had overdosed on what appeared to be heroin as the powder was still in his nasal cavity. Another non-medical chief petty officer, attempted to help. When I arrived the sailor was lying on a porch not breathing and looking poorly. He was a young black fellow about 18 years of age. I quickly pulled out my defibrillator, slapped the paddles to his chest which revealed a flat-line (no cardiac activity) I assigned the chief to start CPR which he had been trained to do by myself. So we shocked him, started an IV and gave him a bunch of Narcan, along with some epinephrine and none of it worked. Still flat line, and now unable to stimulate any signs of life. I had never had a young person die on me so this was pretty devastating to me. I didn’t cry but sure felt like it. It made me sick at my stomach, thinking a young heathy person the picture of health was now dead. Someone had to contact his family to let them know and I was glad it was not going to be me. I always wondered afterwards if there was anything else I could have done to have saved him?
A number of the corpsmen on the ship had big time pot habits even smoking on the ship. Remember this was prior to the Navy doing random drug testing and having dope dogs around to sniff out Mary Jane. Before we went ashore we collected medications to deal with common medical problems like traveler’s diarrhea. The drug of choice for that was Kaopectate. It came in a powder form and was reconstituted with water and given by mouth. A few of the corpsmen who were druggie’s decided to put heroin in plastic bags and cover them with the Kaopectate powder in order to get them back on the ship as no one would check them for drugs. I found this out after we got underway and left Pattaya Beach. I was told if I said anything that they would see to it that I was thrown off the ship while at sea.
During the course of the next week or two at sea I treated 12 more sailors for heroin overdose and was fortunate enough to save all of them.
Afterwards, my commanding officer awarded me the Navy Achievement Medal for my lifesaving efforts. I thought this was rather ironic that I would get a medal for saving guys from a problem that the Navy had all but ignored. Things seemed to have subsided as we pulled back into Subic Bay, Philippines. From there, I flew off to Guam and back to the states where I would be discharged in November of 1979. After the ship returned to San Diego in the winter of 1979-80, the corpsmen who had brought the heroin aboard the carrier attempted to sell the heroin in San Diego and supposedly both were found dead in the water.
In the Spring of 1980, I began to pursue by bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Cincinnati and completed in 1984. From there I went back into the Navy after I was commissioned as a Nurse Corps Officer. I spent the next 3 years in the Norfolk, Virginia area where I had no contact or experience with heroin. Probably, because the Navy had finally wised up and began random drug testing. I left the Navy again in the fall of 1987 and returned to Cincinnati where I completed a Master of Science in Trauma Nursing. Over the following years, I had varying experience with heroin while at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and University Hospitals/Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2008, I returned to Cincinnati where I directed an emergency room on Cincinnati’s East side where we saw a number of overdoses usually related to big concerts on that side of town at Old Coney Island. I had an opportunity to teach in 2011 and ended up at Beckfield College in Florence, KY for the next 3 years. The heroin epidemic was in full swing and during every quarter I had at least one student who had a friend or family member that had OD’d.
In the fall of 2014, I decided to return to the hospital and came to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where on a daily basis we saw between 10 and 20 drug overdose patients on any given day. Many ended up brain dead and became organ donors. The Transplant Programs at UCMC flourished because of the increased availability of organs from drug overdoses. A dirty little secret that no one had talked about.
A few weeks ago after 34 years in the business I decided to retire. I began looking for volunteer opportunities to help with the pandemic of heroin. Your book was very enlightening and I wanted to share by story with you. Feel free to use as you like.
Registered Nurse from Greater Cincinnati, Ohio