Paramedic chronicles the daily tragedy of drug overdoses in Connecticut before and during pandemic

Jesse Leavenworth, Hartford Courant
·5 min read

A veteran Hartford paramedic and published author laces his new book with grim and sorrowful scenes from Connecticut’s worsening opioid epidemic: A heroin user tumbles unconscious from a portable toilet; a young woman, already wizened and pocked with sores, sells herself to feed a daily need; a mother kneels over her dead son, “kissing his face, her tears falling on his cold skin,” pleading in Spanish, “‘No te vayas; no te vayas (Do not go; do not go).’”

“Killing Season: A Paramedic’s Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Opioid Epidemic,” by Peter Canning, is due out on April 6 from Johns Hopkins University Press. Canning, 62, has been a front-line medic since 1995, an eyewitness to the misery of heroin-obsessed lives in Hartford and its suburbs.

A former speechwriter for then-U.S. Sen. and Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, he has written several books (petercanning.org), both nonfiction and fiction, centered on life and death experiences that have become much more frequent in the past few years. State authorities say fatal overdoses in Connecticut increased by 13% last year, and there’s no sign the trend is cooling.

A Simsbury native and married father of three children, Canning now works part time for American Medical Response and as EMS coordinator at John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington. He recently answered questions about his new book, his advocacy for chronic drug users and lessons learned from a life of emergency response.

Q: Your book throughout includes scenes of overdoses, including fatalities and portraits of people trying in vain to revive lost loved ones. What was your purpose in including so many brutally descriptive snapshots?

A: In Connecticut, there are nearly four overdose deaths each day, and it is only getting worse. Some people are found by their families, others by strangers. I wanted people to see what we in EMS do and to understand the breadth of this epidemic and see that each death is a person once loved by someone, not a statistic.

Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected what you’re seeing on the job?

A: COVID has increased people’s isolation and limited their access to services. We are seeing more deaths in residences where people used alone and there was no one to find them to give them naloxone or call 911 when there was still a chance to save them.

Q: You write that your views toward drug users evolved in your 25-plus years as a paramedic. How has your attitude changed and why?

A: I used to think people who used drugs had a character flaw. Over time, as the overdoses increased and I began listening to my patients’ stories of how they got started using — most cases started with an injury and a doctor’s prescription, some with innocent experimentation, others pressured by their partners — I came to see that addiction is a disease that could happen to me or people I love as easy as it happened to my patients.

Instead of telling them to just say no or they will end up dead or in jail, I try to help them find services if they want them, or where they can get naloxone or clean syringes if they are not ready to quit. I have embraced harm reduction that seeks to mitigate the risks of those who continue to use. The mantra is, “Dead people don’t recover.”

Q: You favor safe injection sites for drug users. Why is this important? Isn’t this an uphill battle, or do you think attitudes have changed enough to make such facilities possible in the next few years?

A: People die of opioid overdoses because law and stigma drive them into the shadows. When we treat addiction as a crime instead of a disease, and when we shame users instead of treating them as members of our community deserving of the same love and compassion as anyone else who is vulnerable, people are going to hide their use. They will continue to die alone behind locked doors and in dark alleys.

I am hoping that under the new administration, the Justice Department will drop their opposition to overdose prevention sites and we can move more fully to a health care model of fighting this epidemic rather than a criminal approach.

Q: Would you agree that chronic drug users exact a heavy toll on themselves, their families and society, particularly in terms of health care costs and the larcenies and other crimes they commit to support their drug use? How should the public respond?

A: Addiction is a disease. We need to invest in those afflicted rather than spend so excessively on punishment. Rehab services, harm reduction, housing and employment opportunities will go farther to ending the deaths than continuing to spend so excessively on the punishment side of our failed war on drugs.

Q: What have you learned about yourself from so many close encounters with chronic drug users? Are you haunted by what you have seen?

A: Twenty-five years as a paramedic has taught me life is transient; we are all just moments away from being on the other side of the stretcher — a car crash, a heart attack, cancer or addiction. The best we can do is love our families, try to be good at our jobs and treat others with kindness.

Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at jleavenworth@courant.com