WSAZ Investigates: A Dose of Reality
CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A WSAZ investigation into the heroin epidemic in Cabell County quickly went viral. Now, we are following up with the young man shown overdosing and the paramedics who saved him in that shocking body camera video.
In WSAZ Investigates: A Dose of Reality, 26-year-old Joey overdoses on heroin in his Barboursville home. His mom calls 911, and Cabell County EMS Supervisor Chad Ward arrives on scene first.
Chad's body camera is rolling as he finds Joey lying on his bed, turning blue and only breathing twice a minute. He is just minutes from death. More paramedics arrive and they give Joey Narcan, a drug that reverses an overdose.
In just a matter of minutes, Joey is awake and walking. The dramatic scene is shown through the eyes of Chad -- a scene he and his paramedics see every single day.
"I want these people to know, you were on death's door," said Chad. "I know it doesn't seem like it now, but truly you were. Another five or 10 minutes could have made a big difference."
After the story first aired, it went viral. The web article was viewed more than 300,000 times in just a couple of days. The story was also featured on national websites, was the number one story in the news section of Reddit, and was shared thousands of times on social media across the country.
"I never believed it was going to get that big," Chad said. "When you get a story and it gets out that big, maybe it helped one person to quit doing heroin -- decide, 'This is not for me. I don't want to risk it.' Or maybe it helped one person to say, 'I'm never going to try heroin. I see what it can do.' Either way, if we helped one person, it was a great story. It was worth it."
One person the story did help is Joey. After the story aired, Joey posted a message to his friends and family on Facebook explaining that he planned on seeking help and going to rehab.
"I can't continue to live this way anymore," said Joey's post. "I want better things to happen in my life and if I continue on the path I am in, I will be dead. Time to improve my life."
After our story aired, he posted again, saying he didn't give us permission to use the video for attention, but to bring awareness to the drug epidemic. He wants to help other people who are struggling.
Joey's sister also spoke to WSAZ, saying the story was a wake-up call for her brother.
"I hope and pray this opens people's eyes," said Emmi, Joey's sister. "Thank you, Kaitlynn LeBeau, for doing this documentary. Hopefully it's saving lives."
Chad said he is glad to see the video is eye-opening for Joey and his family.
"It is a wonderful feeling to that that OK, we did this story and now this young man might get some help, might get past this addiction," Chad said. That just feels good -- there's no other way to put it."
Chad, Joey and Emmi all say they hope this story continues to make a nationwide impact -- showing the reality of the heroin problem and that there are real people behind the overdose statistics.
"I hope people keep seeing it; I hope it changes people," Chad said. "Anything we can do that is going to eventually help is what we need to be doing."
CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- A 911 call comes in to Cabell County EMS. The caller is a worried mother. She just found her son unconscious in their Barboursville home. He's turning blue and barely breathing. A used needle lays on the floor next to his bed. He is minutes from death.
The first to arrive at the home is EMS supervisor Chad Ward. His body camera is recording the disturbing but familiar scene.
"A lot of times you'll hear people refer to Huntington as Little Detroit," said Chad. "I never believed we'd be treating 2 and 3 heroin overdoses a day. Never."
It's a cold Sunday night. Chad arrives and is greeted at the door by Mary.
"He might be dead," said Mary. "I have no idea what he took."
Chad is calm. He's responded to a heroin overdose dozens of times before. He enters a back bedroom and sees Joey unresponsive on the bed.
"Alright, honey, let me work with him," Chad reassures Mary.
The body camera scans the room -- Chad is looking for the needle Joey used to shoot up. He finds it on the floor and tells Mary not to touch it.
"Just leave it there; just leave it there," Chad tells her.
He moves Joey on to the floor and begins giving him oxygen. Joey's heartbeat is strong, but he's only breathing twice a minute. Chad is working against the clock.
This is a normal day for Chad and his paramedics.
"I don't know what brings anybody to it," Chad tells WSAZ. "Anxiety, depression, just looking for something to do. It's hard to say. But it is truly everywhere."
In 2015, there were 944 drug overdoses in Cabell County. That's up more than 300% from 2014.
944 reported overdoses in 2015
272 reported overdoses in 2014
256 reported overdoses in 2013
146 reported overdoses in 2012
Out of the total number of overdoses, 70 proved fatal -- the deadliest year the county has seen for drug overdoses. Chad fears 2016 will be just as grim.
"I think it's going to get worse before it gets better," said Chad. "And honestly, I don't know what will make it better."
He also worries that the staggering numbers pack little punch now-a-days. He understands why, though. He has responded to 7 overdoses in one day. Some of his paramedics have responded to as many as 14 in one day of work.
"Every day that we go on an overdose, I just think oh my goodness, here we go again, here we go again, here we go again," said Brenda Johnson, a Cabell County paramedic.
Brenda has been a paramedic for Cabell County for 14 years. When she started her career, she had no idea how many of her patients she would be treating for an overdose.
"Once they start using it then it's hard to let go of it," said Brenda.
But it's not just addicts, she said. It can be a gamble for first-time users -- especially if the heroin is laced.
"It may be a situation where they're going to try it one time, you know just that one time, but they don't realize that one time could be the last time they try it," said Brenda.
Some of the additional drugs that heroin can be laced with are incredibly dangerous and even lethal.
"It will literally just kill them in a matter of minutes," said Chad. "Some of these drugs are mixed with light fluid and phosphorus and things you would never dream about putting in your body."
About four minutes have gone by when more paramedics arrive to help Chad. They immediately begin prepping Joey for Narcan -- a drug that reverses an overdose.
"Everybody's heard about Narcan and what an amazing drug it is and literally it will take somebody from the edge of death to back alert and oriented just like we're talking now," said Chad.
But although Narcan saves lives, and could save Joey's, Chad and many of his paramedics say it's creating more concern than comfort for them. Brenda says Narcan is giving drug users a false sense of security.
"That scares me because I'm afraid the people who are using or abusing these drugs are going to get into the mindset of, 'Well, somebody's going to have Narcan. It's going to be close by so I'm okay. Even if I overdose, somebody's going to save me,'" said Brenda. "You know, some we can save, some we can't."
The paramedics give Joey Narcan. Less than a minute and a half later, Joey takes a deep breath. He's awake and the paramedics begin asking him what drugs he took.
"Heroin -- did you shoot heroin?" Chad asks.
"A tiny bit, yeah," Joey responds after some hesitation. The paramedics have to reassure Joey that they are not the cops and are there to help -- something they have to do often on overdose calls, Chad said.
"Now, Joey, listen to me man," Chad says as Joey stands up. "About ten more minutes, you'd be dead. I'm not kidding you, I'm not lying to you, I'm not trying to scare you. Somebody hadn't been here about 10 more minutes, you'd be laying there dead as a doornail right now."
Joey has a second chance at life, but the paramedics know for as many people as they save, there will be another overdose.
They just saved someone's child, but Chad says one of the most heart-breaking experiences is interacting with children who have found their parents unresponsive.
"It's harder to deal probably with the children and try to make them understand and comfort them than it is to deal with the patient themselves," said Chad. "You're trying to comfort them. You're trying to tell them and they're, 'What's going on? Is mommy dead?' And you know, depending on the situation, you have to try to explain to these children at their level what's going on. You know, that they've taken something bad it looks like and we're going to try to help em out and make 'em well again."
The same calls stick with Brenda.
"That to me is very disheartening, that's very disheartening," said Brenda. "To think that you would have small children in your house that are depending on you to keep them safe and then this person is engaging in that kind of activity. But here, again, it's an addiction."
Chad has responded to homes where an entire family has overdosed: Mother, father and son.
"I walked in and thought, how does one family, the entire family, get involved in this?" said Chad. "What's going on in their lives that they think this is good for everybody?"
Many of the calls they go on are for patients they have treated for an overdose before. After saving their lives with Narcan, they just begin using again.
"It's kind of sad when you roll up on a scene and look at somebody and you know immediately who they are because of the fact that you've picked them up before for a drug overdose," said Brenda.
As more people become addicted, Brenda and Chad say there is yet to be a real solution to the problem.
"I don't see it slowing down any time soon," said Chad. "I only see it getting worse."
"The only solution is to educate as many people as we can about this epidemic and get the people who are using drugs treatment," said Brenda.
The family featured in this story did not want to be interviewed, but gave WSAZ permission to show the video.