An Opioid Death Prompts Denver Public Library To Keep Overdose Antidote On Hand

Listen Now
Photo: DPL Narcan 1 | Social Worker W/ Meds - MSakas
Elissa Hardy, a social worker at the Denver Public Library, holds up a CPR mask and a bottle of Narcan. The medicine is used to reverse an opioid overdose.

The Denver Public Library is one of the first in the country to carry Narcan, the brand name for Naloxone, a medication used to reverse an opioid overdose. The decision was made after the library discovered a deceased 25-year-old man in a bathroom at the Central Library in the heart of downtown, just a stone’s throw from Civic Center Park.

“Do you let somebody potentially die? In your building? When you could have just sprayed something up their nostril and potentially save them?" asked Denver’s city librarian, Michelle Jeske. "To me that's a pretty easy decision to make.”

An autopsy showed the man died from the combined effects of heroin, meth and two anti-anxiety medications. The man, Michael, was homeless and identified only through his fingerprints. His mother Kelly requested that this reporter not use the family's last name for privacy reasons related to criminal activity.

"Every time he got a few bucks in his pocket, he would use that for his addiction," said Kelly, a resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She was close to Michael, but said he was sometimes difficult to keep track of. For her, one of his favorite childhood books — “Oh, The Places You'll Go,” by Dr. Seuss — partly explains his wanderlust.

“I used to read it to him all the time,” Kelly said. “And then, all the places that he went. He's been all over this country."

Michael worked as a petitioner going door-to-door to gather signatures for causes, like animal welfare. It was work that eventually brought him to Denver last summer. Michael was found in the library Feb. 3, 2017. His mom said his addiction is what left him homeless.

One of the Denver Public Library’s social workers (they have two on staff), Kristi Schaefer, has heard about fatal overdoses in the homeless community. She said many of them have told them that they “themselves are carrying Narcan, to bring back their friends and to just take care of each other."

Photo: DPL Narcan 2 | Central Library - MSakas
A man speaks on his cell phone in front of the Denver Public Library's Central location, at the corner of 14th Ave. and Broadway in downtown Denver.

Elissa Hardy, the library’s other social worker, said they first ordered 12 kits, thinking it would be on hand if it was needed. But then four bottles, each costing the library $75 a piece, were used in six days.

“I think there might have been a bad batch of something going through the city, because that's fairly unusual,” Hardy said of the sudden high demand on their Narcan supply.

The Denver library has now ordered more, and have used Narcan six times as of the publishing of this story. In comparison, law enforcement officers across Colorado have used Narcan more than 170 times since the start of 2017.

Staff at other Denver Public Library branches will also be trained to use Narcan. But most of the drug use happens at the Central Library. Hardy said she thinks it’s connected to homeless people being forced to leave the parks. The library is a safe place to go.

"People don't have a safe place to use, let alone be," Hardy said. "But if you are using, where do you go to use? That's private, and that's safe?"

Narcan is not as simple as spraying it up someone’s nose, Hardy said. A heroin overdose stops a person’s breathing, and eventually the heart. So CPR and other first-aid is required.

Once the Narcan starts to work, Hardy said they wake up like nothing happened — “usually asking, what are you doing? What's going on?"

"They're very disoriented, all of that not knowing that they had just been in that situation.”

Michael's mother Kelly wasn't aware of the library's decision to start carrying Narcan after his death, or of the six people they've used it on — until our interview.

"He's done something, to save lives," Kelly said. "OK, I can take a tiny, itty-bitty bit of pride in that. Michael was a good man. He was a good man.”

Other libraries are now considering the same decision to carry Narcan. Paralleling what happened in Denver, the San Francisco Public Library has also found a man dead from an overdose in a bathroom. They've contacted the Denver Library for guidance.