Hidden Scars: Surviving An Overdose Just The Beginning For Many Opioid Addicts

Nov 30, 2017

Opioid overdose survivors can experience physical and mental health problems, long after they're revived with naloxone.
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO

In Springfield, most calls to the city’s 911 emergency switchboard are related to an opioid overdose.

Some overdose victims will die. Many others will be saved with the fast-acting overdose reversal drug Narcan.

But, for some surviving overdose victims, that’s not the end of the story. An overdose can leave behind lasting mental and physical scars, advocates say.

The​ ​drug​ ​Narcan​ ​can​ ​seem​ ​like​​ ​magic​.​ ​Just​ ​one shot​ ​of​ ​the​ ​powerful​ medicine ​can​ ​literally​ ​bring​ ​an overdose victim ​back​ ​from​ ​the​ ​dead.​

But​ ​what happens​ ​between​ ​the​ ​time​ of an opioid overdose and when ​Narcan​ ​is​ ​administered?​

That all ​depends​ ​on​ the person’s physical health and how long their breathing was stopped, says Springfield​ ​Fire​ ​Chief​ ​Nick​ ​Heimlich.

He says a drug overdose immediately triggers a powerful series of critical life-and-death changes in the body.

“Vital organs start to shut down, and it’s in a desire to preserve oxygen for the brain. So, my kidneys stop processing, my liver, all of those organs start to shut down in order to preserve the last amount of oxygen for brain tissue,” he says. 

When a person is starved of oxygen for even a few minutes, he says a condition called hypoxia sets in.​

“And now I’m at zero and I can only live at zero for a very brief window of time and still be able to be brought back out of that arena,” he says. 

How long can a person survive in this condition?

“Well, usually just a couple minutes,” says Heimlich. 

Naloxone, also known by its brand name of Narcan, can reverse the effects of opioid overdose.
Credit Springfield Fire Rescue Division

And when an overdose victim is brought back, they’re often at risk for other serious health problems.

At Springfield Regional Medical Center, Chief ​Nursing Officer ​Elaine Storrs says hypoxia can​ ​lead​ ​to​ ​permanent​ ​or​ ​fatal damage.

It can ​affect ​major​ ​organs​ such as ​the​ ​lungs,​ ​heart and ​kidneys.

She says a drug overdose can also damage ​the​ ​central​ ​nervous​ ​system.

“People sometimes think that it’s just trauma, physical trauma. But not necessarily. Brain injury can occur from lack of oxygen and you can have longterm effects from that.“

After an overdose, she says some victims may experience symptoms, including ​tremors,​ ​loss​ ​of​ ​balance​ ​and​ ​coordination,​ ​inability​ ​to​ ​read,​ ​write​ ​or communicate. They may suffer memory​ ​loss or ​hearing​ ​impairment. And a loss of oxygen could even ​lead​ ​to​ ​a​ ​permanent vegetative​ ​state. ​

There​ are no ​hard​ ​numbers​ ​for​ ​what​ ​percentage​ ​of​ ​overdose​ ​victims end up suffering​ ​lingering​ ​after​​-effects.

What is clear is that many opioid overdose survivors go into immediate withdrawal, which often pushes them to use again as soon as possible.

Watching the same people cycle into and out of the emergency room for an overdose can be hard on the doctors and nurses, too, Storrs ​says.

“There is a second victim in this and that is the health-care providers," she says. "It is hard on their psyche to continuously revive people again and again, especially repeat faces. It’s very disheartening to them not to be able to fix. Because we’re fixer personalities. People who go into health care have a fixer personality. And we feel a sense of failure when we continually treat people who are overdosing."

With no end in sight to the opioid epidemic, Clark County officials are trying to prevent more overdoses from happening in the first place.

They’ve launched a program, called Warm Hand-Off, to reach surviving overdose victims with addiction treatment before they even leave the hospital.