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In the heart of the heroin epidemic: EMTs
02:10 - Source: CNN/HLN

Story highlights

Heroin affects a quarter of Cabell County's population, according to local health estimates

EMTs in Huntington have responded to nearly 1,000 overdoses this year

CNN  — 

Driving through the streets of Huntington, West Virginia, with Gordon Merry is a stark reminder of what heroin is doing to American communities.

Merry, director of Cabell-Huntington Emergency Medical Services, points to neighborhoods and homes with razor-sharp recall. He tells a story about responding to a family – mother, father and son – overdosing on heroin.

Luckily, as he tells it, another son wasn’t using and called 911 after his parents and brother overdosed.

Having spent all of his 63 years in this midsize city tucked into the Appalachian mountains, Merry is still at a loss as to why people turn to the drug that is now, by local health estimates, affecting a quarter of Cabell County’s population.

"One overdose is too many," says EMS Director Gordon Merry.

“One overdose is too many. It is unacceptable. The people, I don’t know why they do it,” he said. “It’s destroying a whole generation. We’re losin’ em.”

In Merry’s office, you can see the decades of honors and awards he’s received as director of county Emergency Medical Services. He has worked with senators, representatives and governors. He has worked alongside the Secret Service for presidential visits and dealt with floodwalls when the Ohio River swelled into the city of Huntington.

But after years of preparing a community for crisis, Merry is now dealing with a challenge that’s bigger than most: a crippling heroin epidemic that continues to rage across his town and county. His perspective of the heroin and opioid problems in this part of America is a tragic hometown story and the professional duty of a man tasked to deal with crisis. 

The problems here are well-documented. In August, the city’s struggle hit a new benchmark when it saw 27 heroin overdoses in the span of four hours.

With a staff of nearly 175, it is Merry and the Cabell-Huntington EMS who stand at the edge of this crisis as first responders, arriving on scene moments after a user has passed out in their home or a gas station bathroom. Sometimes, Merry said, they see the same people multiple times a day.

Beyond the toll it’s taken on the community, the hardened psyches of Merry’s paramedics and EMTs have also been shaken by the dizzying pace of overdoses. His office started holding monthly support group meetings to deal with the emotional effects of what the EMTs are seeing every day. 

“I think, truly, we were struggling with that,” Merry said. “And that’s why we started to work with local hospitals to try and get them counseling, to deal with these problems.”

Beyond Huntington, the opioid problem continues to plague West Virginia, from the panhandle in the north to the southern reaches bordering Kentucky. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of opioid overdose deaths here in 2014 was the highest in the nation.

Between 2014 and 2015, the state’s opioid overdose deaths jumped 17%. In 2017 alone, Merry’s EMTs have responded to nearly 1,000 overdoses, most of them involving heroin. 

For decades, Huntington was a humming railroad hub. It’s also home to Marshall University, the second-largest university in the state, and Saturdays in the fall are defined by football. But since the resurgence of heroin and opioids, Huntington has become a portrait of the problem – a snapshot of the larger issue plaguing communities across America. 

“I don’t want people to think this is unique to Huntington,” Merry said, “This problem is across the US. I think that we are open about our problem, I think we’re aggressively trying to mitigate the problem, but no one knows the answer at this point.”