The War on Drugs Failed — Will Radical Compassion Work?

​​Kevin FitzGerald of Ballwin volunteers for the national Never Use Alone hotline, sitting on the phone with people after they use narcotics so he can call for help if they overdose.
​​Kevin FitzGerald of Ballwin volunteers for the national Never Use Alone hotline, sitting on the phone with people after they use narcotics so he can call for help if they overdose. PHUONG BUI

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FitzGerald’s home includes photos of his public activism, but his work with NUA is often quieter, a phone call with a stranger. - PHUONG BUI
PHUONG BUI
FitzGerald’s home includes photos of his public activism, but his work with NUA is often quieter, a phone call with a stranger.

Volunteer operators are trained not to bring up the topic of getting into treatment.

"We never mention treatment unless the caller does," Brown says. "Myself, if I had called a line like this [when still using heroin] and the operator was chatting me about quitting and trying to push me to go into treatment, I'm not going to call back. It takes a lot to get that trust. It would totally destroy it if we then start pushing them into recovery. Our purpose is to keep them alive. It's not our place to decide when they quit."

NUA prefers to recruit volunteers with substance-abuse histories because "they can understand me. It's just easier to relate to somebody who's been there, done that," Brown says.

The Never Use Alone website states that the organization is not accepting volunteer applications right now.

The website also notes that serving as a volunteer "is a high stress position, and can be traumatic at times. While most calls end safely, you will likely have a call where the caller is overdosing, and all you can do is call for help, and then listen while you wait for the ambulance to arrive. Those calls ARE TRAUMATIC! If you cannot handle high stress, traumatic situations, this probably isn't the position for you."

Moore, the Oklahoma volunteer, says the stressful nature of the calls comes from the serious issues that callers present.

"We're both an overdose prevention line and a suicide prevention line at times," she says.

Moore notes the recent experiences of a volunteer operator who himself was fresh out of drug rehab and newly sober.

"And you want to make a difference," Moore says. "But we're always concerned [that a call] will trigger a relapse" for the operator.

The newly sober volunteer received a call from a substance user who, after a few minutes on the line, passed out.

The operator got ahold of the caller's mother, with whom he coached through the process of administering Narcan and then rescue breaths "until EMS arrived," Moore says. "And I know that took a big toll on that person."

The cold, the cold.

The icy November wind is dagger-like and unrelenting; it cuts to the bone on this late Friday afternoon outside the QuikTrip at the corner of Dunn Road and Interstate 270 in north St. Louis County.

FitzGerald and his new friend, the Rev. Pamela Paul, who is known universally as Pastor Pam, seem undaunted.

Pastor Pam, the pastor of a north St. Louis church, and FitzGerald are here on a mission: to hand boxes of Narcan to everyone they see coming in and out of this busy service station and food market.

The responses that FitzGerald and Pastor Pam get are pretty typical. Some people appear indifferent and deny they know anyone with a drug problem. Others seem like they genuinely care, a few opening up about drug issues among friends and family members.

A tall man smoking from a vape pen approaches the QuikTrip door when Pastor Pam accosts him.

"This is Narcan," she says. "You give this to a person who overdoses."

The man looks at her quizzically.

"The Good Samaritan Act will protect you," she says, alluding to the state law that immunizes people from prosecution who call 911 to report drug overdoses.

"And you just saved somebody's life," Pastor Pam concludes, her face lighting up in a bright smile. "That's what you want, right?"

The man nods, takes the Narcan and continues through the Quik-Trip door.

Pastor Pam, who's been roaming the St. Louis streets for years handing out Narcan, is an old hand at this.

"That's the key, awareness," she says, noting that a lot of people still refuse to accept her Narcan offerings. "People aren't rejecting you when they're rejecting it."

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