Drug addicts waited in line with empty milk cartons, plastic bags, jugs or anything they could find to fill with used needles to exchange for new, clean instruments that will maintain their drug addiction but ensure it will be in a clean way.
The Needle Exchange, run by Dr. Marc D. Lasher, gives out clean needles in exchange for dirty ones to help reduce the spread of AIDS, HIV and hepatitis B and C. Along with needles, Lasher also provides addicts with medical attention and a basic CPR course.
Ed, whose last name is being withheld, has been using heroin for 10 years and Saturday he sat in the needle exchange truck getting a muscle infection cleaned out by Lasher.
When addicts run out of veins to shoot heroine in, Lasher said, they start injecting them into their muscles, which can cause serious infections.
Cassandra Dewitt, a nursing graduate student from Fresno State, said that working with Lasher at the needle exchange has taught her a lot.
“Everyone deserves to be treated ethically, with dignity and respect – no matter what background they come from,” Dewitt said.
A blue Needle Exchange card is given to a patient that allows them to legally carry needles and Narcan. Narcan is a drug that reverses opiate overdose, Dewitt said.
“[Lasher] teaches basic CPR as well as what to do in case of an emergency” Dewitt said. “So if someone uses too much – for example, heroine, and now they aren’t breathing and we can’t find a pulse, at least they know the steps of CPR and how to administer the drug, while emphasizing that you call emergency medical service.”
Dewitt said that patients are encouraged to still call an ambulance because although the Narcan will reverse the opiates, there is still a change they can fall back into an overdose state of being. The Narcan should be used as a way to buy time until the ambulance gets there because it increases their chances of living.
“Sometimes when you do give Narcan to someone who is down, they wake up kind of angry because what you did was reverse their high – their pain medication,” Dewitt said. “So if you give that to them, it is going to uncover all of that pain the were trying to mask.”
Dewitt said the only real side effect of Narcan is that you will feel pain after taking it, but you can’t overdose on it. The saddest thing Dewitt said she has seen is a patient’s ongoing wounds.
“If you’ve seen a zombie apocalypse movie where people are emaciated skinny, open wounds and untreated medical issues – we see that here,” Dewitt said. “We see people who go on with these chronic problems that aren’t treated by a doctor for so long they end up looking miserable and in so much pain.”
Shahram Aghaei, a pre-med graduate from Fresno State and a volunteer at Saint Agnes Medical Center said she believes fresh needles are important.
“Providing fresh sterilized needles for them allows them to keep certain diseases like Hep C, AIDS, from spreading,” Aghaei said. “A lot of these addicts also don’t know the proper way of shooting drugs and they end up overdosing and killing themselves and spreading disease.”
Aghaei said that death would not give them future opportunities.
“The goal is to get them to quit,” Aghaei said. “But if they are dying before they get the opportunity to quit then they won’t ever be able to.”