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The Heroin Fix: Addicts Saving Each Other With Narcan

By Mark Ackerman and Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4)- The drug Narcan is becoming first responders first line of defense in the opioid crisis. In Denver alone, paramedics have used Narcan to reverse more than 4,000 overdoses over the past five years.

But that's just part of the story – heroin users are also administering the overdose antidote and saving each other on a daily basis.

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CBS4 spoke with Melissa, who was hooked on heroin and lived underneath an Interstate 25 bridge on Denver's west side.

"There are people who look at you like you are garbage and you don't deserve to live," she said.

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But, when she overdosed, fellow addicts rushed to her aid and saved her life.

"I was lucky, the people camping next to us had Narcan and they Narcaned me," she said.

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At Denver's Civic Center park, Matt says he sees about five overdoses a week. He moved to Denver for a six-figure salary, but couldn't keep the job because of his addiction.

"I lost my girl, the house, and the truck," he said. "People just hear about that story in a country song, but it really does happen."

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This summer, Matt overdosed after injecting drugs in between the pillars at Civic Center Park's Greek amphitheater. People nearby used Narcan and kept him alive until paramedics arrived. Now, Matt carries Narcan himself.

"I gave some away just yesterday to save somebody else," Matt told CBS4.

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He got Narcan at a Denver needle exchange, the Harm Reduction Center on Colfax Avenue. Inside the offices they keep a running total of lives saved on a dry erase board. The ever-changing number was 611 when CBS4 visited this past summer.

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That's in addition to the thousands of lives saved by Denver paramedics.

Click on the interactive map to see the Denver zip codes where Narcan is used the most.

Vernon Lewis works at the Harm Reduction Center and trains people to use Narcan after saving dozens of people on the streets.

"I had so much pride in myself," said Vernon, recalling the first time he used Narcan to save someone's life. "I had never done anything super spectacular in my life, and for that person, I did something spectacular for him."

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Vernon Lewis (credit: CBS)

He's now saved so many people he's earned the nickname the "Narcan Ninja" after being the one people turned to for help when someone overdosed. After an overdose, drug users would frequently leave their ailing friends with Vernon and then flee, afraid of encountering police.

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"I don't consider myself a hero. I consider myself doing the human thing."

He said he doesn't know how many of the roughly one hundred different people he's saved will turn their lives around.

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"Being alive you can be something," he said. "Being dead you can't be nothing."

As for Melissa, who overdosed and was saved by Narcan, she says since then, she was able to get sober and reconnect with her children.

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"I'm just very fortunate that I have family that didn't give up on me when they should have," she said.

Narcan is now available at major pharmacy chains without a prescription.

Mark Ackerman is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. Follow him on Twitter @ackermanmark

CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass has been with the station more than 30 years uncovering waste, fraud and corruption. Follow him on Twitter @Briancbs4.

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