Batavia woman's outreach to drug addicts is gaining acceptance

Lyndsay Hartman spends Saturday afternoons sitting in front of death and trying not to think about it.

She loads up her vehicle with needles, Narcan and fentanyl test strips. She drives over to the Kane County Coroner's office and parks outside the front door with a mission to be a beacon of understanding and opportunity.

Those struggling with addiction can come to her, judgment-free, for supplies she hopes will keep them safe and alive long enough to make another choice to try and get clean. Many who don't find Hartman at the front door of the coroner's office increasingly end up coming through the back door in a body bag.

The coroner's office logged 68 drug overdose deaths in 2018, a record that seems to get broken every year. Hartman already has submitted paperwork to the county health department documenting half a dozen of the overdose saves stemming from the supplies she hands out. Some of those supplies come from the health department.

Getting those supplies from the county and being welcome at the coroner's office are two of the changes Hartman has seen since she started Point to Point last April that suggest a growing acceptance of the harm-reduction model behind her mission.

Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain said he is both aware and supportive of Hartman's efforts.

"These are people who are going to be using anyway," Hain said. "Why not allow them to use safer so that the bigger burden isn't felt on our health care system? And it begins the conversation of support. That's the baseline any addict needs. The conversation starts with at least being safe. And, then, if you're open to it, we have treatment available to you. Lyndsay is becoming an icon for the community to begin helping this population."

Not everyone sees it that way. Though not pointing to any particular agency, Hain said several local police chiefs will arrest Hartman if they find her in their communities.

"Some have been very black and white in saying it's illegal," Hain said. "So there's that risk (of Hartman being arrested), and she does take on that risk. I don't know if the state's attorney would prosecute it or a judge would entertain it, but it's a risk. As sheriff, I don't have to move in such black-and-white circles. I can do what's best for the health and safety of our community."

Hartman said she doesn't think about the risk of arrest. It's just an obstacle to her calling.

"I want people to say this is a good thing, but if that never happens, I'm still going to be out here," Hartman said. "I'm here for the drug user. They (don't care) if the health department or police department says they back me. My job is to be an ally and meet them with compassion."

Local law enforcement isn't Hartman's only obstacle. She uses community Facebook pages to advertise her free services. And the backlash from people unfamiliar with harm reduction often trends toward anger.

"My son pays over $600 per month on insulin with insurance," read one recent comment. "I hope this woman is arrested for aiding junkies."

Another comment captured a frequent sentiment that there are other people more deserving of help.

"They need to offer free EpiPens to people who need them legitimately before offering free stuff to junkies!!" read the post. "Junkies need rehab not more stuff to enable them to continue using!"

Hartman says those comments come from individuals who lack the ability to see someone addicted to drugs as a fellow human. Because drug addiction involves making at least an initial choice to use drugs, there is a general lack of sympathy. But the choice to eat a poor diet can lead to diabetes. The choice to smoke can lead to lung cancer. Hartman notes no one is saying those people shouldn't have access to help.

"People have told me straight up that the people I help don't deserve to breathe," Hartman said. "That disgusts me to my core. No one wants to overdose. No one wants to be brought back with Narcan. People don't think they can use more drugs because their friend has Narcan. And Narcan is not comparable to chemo for cancer patients. Narcan is not treatment. Narcan just helps make sure you don't die. If you had a heart attack because you never stopped eating McDonald's, no one is going to say don't use an AED on you. CPR is free."

A growing segment of Kane County supports Hartman on a personal level. They include the parents of children, young and old, who have died from overdoses.

Stuffing hundreds of tiny cotton balls into Ziploc bags that aren't much bigger is therapeutic for Carrie Wojcik. The cotton balls are part of the kit Hartman hands out to her clients. They will be used to filter heroin prior to injection. Nearby, on a piano, is the urn that holds the ashes of Wojcik's daughter Stacie. She thinks about printing small labels with Stacie's name and the date of her death to put on each of the cotton ball bags.

"People think this only happens on the West Side of Chicago or in downtown Aurora," Wojcik said. "That's the stigma. But it's happening in Batavia. It's happening in Geneva. It's in Naperville, St. Charles, any affluent place you can name. It's there."

It was March 2017 when Wojcik noticed changes in Stacie. The high school student who scored a 30 on her ACT was attending Waubonsee Community College but not completing her English assignments.

Stacie confessed to the drug use but convinced her mother she had it under control. Wojcik wanted to believe the lie. Five weeks later, two Batavia squad cars pulled up to her home at 7 a.m. to tell her Stacie was dead from an overdose. She'd been missing for two weeks by that point. Officials suggested Wojcik should avoid viewing the body.

"I never got to see her again," Wojcik said. "She was smart, beautiful, snarky. A good sense of humor. Now I have this pain. It's something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. And I want people to know that it's not a normal grief process. There are no steps to getting over it. Because there is no getting over it."

Wojcik spends a lot of time on Facebook groups created by parents like her, thousands of parents, who have lost children to drugs. That's where she first learned about what Hartman is doing.

"She's doing a good thing," Wojcik said. "She's keeping people safe. I hope a person who gets one of these cotton balls from Lyndsay at least one time asks her about how to get help."

Those are the moments Hartman hopes for, too. But she has a never-ending sense of not doing enough. She knows there are many more places where she needs to be to reach people struggling, the people she refers to as "my loves." She knows she needs to become an official not-for-profit. In the moments when she's feeling a little less protective about her operation, she dreams of having more people to distribute supplies.

For now, she's on call. Whenever, wherever, whatever people with drug addictions need. And she tries not to think about any of the people she's helping coming through the rear entrance of the coroner's building.

"I can't think about that, I panic when I don't hear from the people I'm working with," Hartman said. "I start obsessively texting or calling. 'Are you sick? Are you safe?' Sometimes I'll check in with someone, and they are like 'I'm not doing that anymore. You don't need to contact me.' That's good.

"On the other hand, maybe someone overdoses several times. Maybe it's six times in a month. But then maybe they go 30 days clean. Maybe longer the next time. Until they don't need me, I'm here. I just hope for the best."

  Lyndsay Hartman started the first needle exchange program in the Kane County area with no support from local officials. But as she compiles records documenting how her efforts have saved people from overdoses, more and more officials are accepting her program model. Brian Hill/
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