Calls for EMS to respond to an overdose have become a frequent occurrence in our community. For some, it's a wake-up call, for others, it's too late.

In an Erie News Now investigation, we are examining the overdose emergency in our community.
Where Erie County Stands:
According to Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook, fentanyl was responsible for 80% of drug deaths in 2021 and the rate of overdoses has only risen since then. The call totals keep rising and it's hitting a breaking point. Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny said, "We can't sustain a city if this continues."
On every call, first responders have seen the trends change and our investigation shows not for the better.
David Basnak, the Executive Director of Emergycare said, "We've seen things transition from more of the prescription drug crisis to the more illicit drug crisis, you know, with heroin and fentanyl and fentanyl, it certainly put a strain on the system in that it adds a whole other dynamic that, you know, we're not sure what somebody took."
Paramedics and EMT's are trained to handle almost everything, but sometimes they are too late. "In 2022, last year, Erie County had 122 drug deaths of those 84% involved fentanyl, 27% cocaine, methamphetamine was 24%, and heroin 2%", explained Erie County Coroner, Lyell Cook.
Fentanyl isn't just gaining popularity in Erie, but throughout Pennsylvania too. Mark Serge, the Chief Deputy of the Attorney General's Office of Pennsylvania said, "Fentanyl is cheap, that's why we are seeing more of it, we don't even see heroin as much in stamp bags, one of the other things we are seeing a lot more of are pressed pills and people making things with pill presses and making an oxycodone or Xanax or valium but it's pure fentanyl."
Erie County Coroner Cook has been on the scene for hundreds of drug-related deaths and says in these situations, age doesn't matter.  "The range of drug deaths last year was 18-87, one of the big fallacies is most people think that when they hear it's a drug death, that it's a teenager, maybe a college kid, but it isn't the average age runs 45 years old, people that are old enough and should know better. The average age last year was 44 for instance", said Cook.
However, not every overdose ends with death. For some, it's a second or third chance at life. "We have officers that go out after somebody has overdosed, we go out and locate them a few days later, we provide them with a list of current providers in the Erie area that deal with drug treatment", said Chief Spizarny.
Narcan has become more accessible and easier to use, proving more people can do their part to try and save a life.


Overcoming Addictions:
 For some people struggling with addiction or drugs, hitting rock bottom was the push they needed to make a change, that was the case for Rikki Boarts. "I was in active addiction when I found out I was pregnant with my son", said Boarts.
Boarts said she has been clean since 2018, after using drugs for years, "I started smoking K-2, it's synthetic marijuana, I started smoking on probation and then because I couldn't smoke weed, and I hate to say I did handle it well, but I didn't. I started being homeless and spent my last $10 on K-2."
Boarts said she often felt judged and alone and was dependent on drugs to numb her feelings, "A lot of people go to addiction to numb the pain and not have to deal with that structure and that violence and any of the stuff they are dealing with on a daily basis, they would rather run and get high than deal with it when it numbs the pain."
It all changed when she found out she was pregnant. "Coming off K-2, is like a person coming of heroin, withdrawing from heroin withdraws you, you are foaming out of the mouth, you are sweating, you are getting in the shower with your clothes on, you are sweating, cold, hot, foaming, it's scary, you are paranoid, you are falling asleep smoking a blunt, like it could be your last day, any day", described Boarts.
Boarts credited the Erie City Mission with helping her survive and now she does what she can to give back and help others who are struggling with addiction.
The Erie City Mission isn't the only place that helps people struggling with addiction. Josh Brittle turned to Gaudenzia in 2015.
"I started using drugs when I was about fifteen years old. And, you know, the disease kind of just progressed quickly and I started doing harder and harder drugs as I got older. I started really disappointing everyone around me and ultimately finding myself in some legal trouble and I ended up getting put on Erie County Treatment Court", said Brittle.
Brittle said he used opioids and benzodiazepines for years until he had a wake-up call. "It hit me at once. They're like, I have a severe problem that's going to kill me if I don't do something about it. You know, and then they gave me one more opportunity, you know, and this place was that last shot for me. And it wasn't just my last shot to stay out of state prison. It was to me, you know, I'm pretty confident was my last shot at life", said Brittle.
Through counseling, group meetings, and hearing other people's stories, Brittle got the help he needed. "I remember he had me write down in our last meeting together, some things that, you know, I saw myself within the next five years and I said I wanted a son and a girl and a house and a business. And I have a son and a girl and a house and a business", said Brittle.
Brittle now owns A and J Pressure Washing and Painting, where he finds fulfillment in completing jobs every day. He said the lessons he learned while going through rehab are things he still holds onto today. "I'm not the monster that I made myself out to be for so long. I learned that I don't have to identify as, you know, a no-good junkie for the rest of my life. I can be productive too, you know, my family and my community around me. That I'm worth life, you know what I mean? That I can find genuine happiness without needing some kind of exterior substance", said Brittle.


Resources to Help Combat Addiction and Overdoses:
Treatment Court is one of many resources in Erie to help those battling addiction. The programs give people the structure, guidance and accountability.
Jake Bauer is one of the many people who have benefited from Treatment Court. "So I've struggled with drugs my whole life and I've tried to get clean multiple times on my own and this program gave me the resources that they offered to help, they gave me the help and here I am", said Bauer. He struggled with drugs and addiction for years, but it wasn't until he entered treatment court that he turned his life around.
Judge Jaime Mead, a Judge in the Common Pleas of Erie County works in Treatment Court and discussed what the program offers, "What we wanted to do was try and break them of their habits so we decided instead of putting them in jail, we would put them in a Treatment Court situation where they would be able to get treatment, pretty extensive treatment, usually it involves inpatient and pretty extensive outpatient treatment as well."
Judge Mead has been involved with Treatment Court since 2019 and said participants have doubled since he arrived. "A lot of the people we have coming in here are hardcore drug users and they have been using first it was heroin, now it is fentanyl for many years and once they stop, you are just saving their lives, there's just no question about it, I'm sure there's people who have gone through this program who would have been dead without it", said Judge Mead.
John Swabb is another person who has benefited from Treatment Court as well.  "It helped me connect with the treatment I need, me personally, I needed a longer-term rehab and the medications I needed and it helped me with the accountability I needed within my life to move forward and recover from addiction", said Swabb.
Swabb said when he was at his lowest, he knew something needed to change.  "I got sick and tired of going to jail all the time, sick and tired of having nowhere to live, nothing to eat, having to do what I had to do to get the next one and they helped me remove myself from that life and that's great", said Swabb.
Even after people complete the Treatment Court, the work is far from over. "Once they graduate, they are not done, they are going to be on probation for a little while, after that we will bring them back about once a month, once every two months, and see how they are doing because a lot of them have jobs have started their jobs, they've been married, they have families and every one of them has been grateful", described Mead.
 A year into the program, Swabb is just happy with his progress. "I never thought I would get this far, it's fantastic, I couldn't have done it without the help of my family, the help of everyone on Treatment Court", said Swabb.
According to Mead, this is their largest graduating class of Treatment Court with twelve people. The program lasts between one and a half to two years.