A hymn of praise for the people fighting for the living

As we approach Overdose Awareness Day, our columnist offers up a paean to the harm reduction workers and healers whose work often goes unnoticed.
Harm reduction workers and advocates
Harm reduction workers and advocatesPhotos courtesy Jack Shuler

Willie Toles could see through the car window that the man on the other side was in trouble.  The doors were locked, but with the help of a police officer, he broke the glass. When they opened the door, the man inside started to roll out and with him, a straw. Toles knew then that the man was overdosing. The officer didn't have naloxone, but Toles did. And he still does. You can find him driving around his Columbus neighborhood handing out naloxone to people who might need it.

On a day off from work, Noam Barnard and his partner were eating out and enjoying a beautiful Cincinnati afternoon when his neighbor called. There was a man passed out in the park near his home. They raced over. The man was on the ground, needle still in his arm. Barnard gave him a dose of naloxone. Then another. The man gradually came to. In the last decade or so, Barnard told me he has lost many people to overdose. He does street outreach with the Coalition for Community Safety, an organization that grew out of the protests during the summer of 2020. Four or five days a week, they meet people where they're at, distributing naloxone, new syringes, mouthwash and condoms.

When Thomas Powell of East Liverpool arrived at the house, he found a man turning blue in a bathroom. He pulled him out and gave him naloxone and rescue breaths. After about 15 minutes, Powell said, the man woke up. He talked with him and asked if he was okay. The man cried. No one, he said, had asked how he was for a long time. "Sometimes, all people need is hope,” Powell told me. 


In one moment, someone was struggling for life and in the next they were awake. They lived because someone showed up with naloxone. These moments are miracles, for sure, but they are also the result of people who have dedicated their lives to realizing such miracles. An overdose reversal could not happen without the time and energy of generations of activists and advocates, of parents and loved ones, and of people who use drugs. At the end of this month, we will honor the dead on International Overdose Awareness Day, but we must not forget to honor those who fight for the living.

A hymn or poem of praise or triumph or thanksgiving is called a paean (pronounced "pee-an"). The word has Greek origins. In Greek mythology, Paeon was a god of healing, a physician who healed Ares and Hades in Homer's Iliad. And in the Odyssey, Homer speaks of Egypt, saying it is home to many healing medicines where "every man is a physician, wise above humankind; for they are of the race of Paeeon."

It is fitting, then, to write a paean to the harm reduction workers, to these healers who often go unnoticed.

Praise be to Dr. Mozes J. Lewenstein and Dr. Jack Fishman, who invented naloxone. Praise be to Dan Biggs who brought the drug to the people who needed it most. Praise be to the folks who get naloxone in the hands of people who use drugs and their friends and allies. Community based distribution is how naloxone gets into the hands of the people who need it most, it's how more lives are saved. Most overdoses are reversed by people who use drugs and their allies – by the people who are present. First responders do as well, but the vast majority are by bystanders.

And somehow naloxone gets distributed far and wide in this state. Distribution networks are everywhere. The largest distribution network in Ohio is run by Harm Reduction Ohio, a network organized by AmandaLynn Reese, who trains and vets its many volunteers, orders naloxone, goes to endless meetings and tracks all the orders. And back at HQ, Shae Dalrymple, Kelsey Bates, Sydney Tavens and Ella Clark put naloxone in a box or mailer and ship it out. That's how it gets into the hands of Noam Barnard and Willie Toles. Last year HRO, distributed 84,000 doses of naloxone.

Through a completely unscientific social media poll, I created an incomplete list of folks doing the work in Ohio (feel free to share this and tag someone you'd like to add to this list). In this month of overdose awareness in the year 2023, I want to send you my sincere praise and thanks.

To Suzanne Plymale and Billie Hecate Stafford of Central Ohio Harm Reduction; to the good people at Wicked Clowns Harm Reduction who set up shop at this year's gathering in Thornville, Alyssa Bolen and Bobbi Archer; to This Must Be the Place, Humbly Aligned, Inc., River Valley Organizing, SOAR, the Coalition for Community Safety, Fringe Public Health, First Collective, JUST, Ohio CAN Summit County, Vickie and Rob Gasior, Brenda Ryan, Ruthie Stimac, Mim Cherie, thank you; to Trish Perry and all the folks at the Newark Homeless Outreach, praise be; to Chris Hawkins, Carrie Spears, Ashley Washburn, Sharona Bishop, Jamie Decker, Dana Fleetham, Rick Barclay, Colton Holley-Wolf, Holly Roush, Jessica Herwald, Bion Niederkohr, Bri Wyza, Jessica Collier, Cindy Koumoutzis, Blyth Barnow, Tonja Elaine, Christina Arrendondo, Neena Marie, Elizabeth Brown-Onzima, Kyle Johnston, Molly Cruz, thank you; to Abby Spears, who holds forth way down south in Portsmouth, much praise ; and to Ashley Rosser who shouted out many of the people listed here, thank you; to all the people who haven’t been called out here, my humblest of thanks; and to all those who remain unnamed because of our ongoing war on people who use drugs, to all those people who have saved so many lives, to all of you, I honor and praise you.

I hold you all in the light.

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