Recently, I met another mother who lost her child to overdose. She was distraught and totally inconsolable; she said it was her fault. I didn't think there was any other pain that would be worse than losing a child, but feeling responsible for the death of your own child must be the worst pain of all. Her guilt for not calling 911 soon enough racked through her body and soul.
Yet, hesitating to make a 911 call for fear of arrest during an overdose is the number one reason that a call is not made. Legislators, prosecuting attorneys, governors that veto, and others that may undermine 911 Good Samaritan legislation do not seem to understand what really is happening in millions of homes across the United States.
Family members usually suspect that their loved one is experimenting or using drugs or alcohol. They have had the talk about the dangers, they have encouraged or tried to get treatment for them, they have talked with other parents and they worry that their loved one will one day go to prison or die. Some families are educated enough about drugs that they may have naloxone in their home or carry it with them just in case. Every time their child comes home they wonder if they will need an ambulance that evening. So parents are on high alert, they constantly check in, sleep with ears and eyes open, cancel evening plans out and constantly worry. Just when they let their guard down, a signal is missed, and the panic begins.
Others feel shame and embarrassment that they have a loved one with an on going substance issue. They know the drill, if a call is made, the neighbors will find out and the family is shunned and gossiped about. Children loose playmates, parents lose friends, ties are broken and silence is the norm. These are the same individuals that hesitate to call when it happens to them. They do not want to believe that it could happen in their own home.
Contrary to what prosecutors and some legislators may believe, it is not cold strangers or drug dealers refusing to call because they fear for their own arrest -- it is friends and family members hesitating to call for fear that their loved one will be arrested after the 911 call is made. Family and friends miss the danger signs of overdose, underestimate the length of time to get care and may spend time cleaning up alcohol, drugs or paraphernalia before emergency personnel arrive.
There are families as well as legislators that have children or family members on probation from one minor offense or another and protection under most 911 Good Samaritan laws do not cover them; a 911 call will break their supervision rules and a warrant for arrest will be issued. Legislators need to understand and feel compassion for the people that they serve, including those under community supervision. These individuals may need the protections the most; they are trying to change their lives, may be in early recovery or may be struggling with addiction. They may not realize that death can come quickly from overuse, misuse or mixing of different substances and an accidental overdose may occur.
Currently, 28 states have some form of 911 Good Samaritan legislation with various degrees of protection for the caller and victim. Legislators may applaud the passing of these 911 Good Samaritan Laws to save lives but if laws do not serve all, they are choosing who may live and who are in danger of death. North Carolina has begun to understand the limit of their 911 Good Samaritan Law and this year expanded legislation to provide further protections. This is a welcomed change in the fight to save lives.
Furthermore, if 911 Good Samaritan Laws are too complex for the public to understand, families and friends will continue to hesitate. They assume that there is no protection if they make a call and fear arrest. More state dollars need to be allocated for public service campaigns so that the public is aware of the law and any limitations of protection from arrest.
As the next legislative session begins, states which do not have 911 Good Samaritan Laws such as South Carolina and Maine can set a new standard of compassion in writing 911 Good Samaritan legislation -- legislation that other states can model and states with poorly written laws such as New York can look to revise.
As overdose deaths continue to rise, legislators still believe that law enforcement is the answer. This has not worked. How many deaths are too many for legislators to finally realize that law enforcement will not reduce the overdose rate within their states? Access to emergency 911 care and access to naloxone during an opioid overdose is the very first step in saving a life and reducing overdose rates.
Legislators have the power and responsibility to pass clear and concise laws that provide emergency 911 services to save lives. Excluding select groups of individuals from protection under 911 Good Samaritan Laws does not serve the public. Fear of arrest, failure and hesitation to use 911 services may bring untimely death. A simple NO CHARGE-Call 911 law will encourage the public to make a call.
Find information on 911 Good Samaritan and Naloxone Legislation.