Batavia woman provides clean needles, naloxone to drug addicts
Lyndsay Hartman's calling started with a love she couldn't fix. It was the kind of love that demanded everything. It was broken and frustrating in ways more suburban residents are learning first hand. When Hartman's relationship failed, it could have extinguished her. Instead, it lit a different fire.
"I loved an addict for a very long time," Hartman said in an explanatory video on her Facebook page. "It's hard to love someone who is addicted to drugs. You think that you can fix it, or that you can make it better, or keep them clean. You can't. I loved my addict. He is now living his life without me. But the lessons he taught me are why I'm doing what I'm doing now."
What Hartman is doing now is a first for the Western suburbs. She created a one-woman needle exchange program from the trunk of her car called Point to Point Kane County. The program invites people who use needles to inject drugs to call her confidentially at a number in Batavia when they need clean syringes or want free access to naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. In trade, Hartman collects the used needles for proper disposal.
Supplying free needles to people addicted to drugs is a practice ripe for local criticism. Batavia sits in Kane County. The county board rejected zoning for a would-be drug addiction treatment center twice in the past two years. Wheaton, in neighboring DuPage County, rejected a drug-treatment center earlier this year. Mixed into all those decisions was a flood of concerns from local residents about rehab centers bringing drug addicts into their neighborhoods.
Hartman's ideal vision for her program involves establishing regular hours where people who want needles or naloxone can meet her at an intersection or outside a library to get them. It may start with only a few people. Hartman believes word-of-mouth and a base of trust will bring out more and more people in search of safe injection supplies. When that comes, Hartman said she knows scrutiny will follow.
"The way I see it is I have stuff; they need stuff. And that's it," Hartman said. "But I'm not naive. It's not like I'm opening a lemonade stand."
There are no laws against the free distribution of syringes or naloxone. Hartman's model and supplies are drawn from an existing needle exchange success story in Chicago. It dates back to the height of the AIDS epidemic.
The denial persists
John Gutenson was a drug addict long before he joined the staff of the Chicago Recovery Alliance. He's spent the last 15 years in Stone Park serving as the westernmost distribution point for the alliance's needle exchange program. That distribution point is the office in Gutenson's personal home. A large number of the people who get needles from him come from farther west, he said. He knows, on a personal basis, the idea that drug users don't already exist in large numbers in the Western suburbs is "definitely bologna." But the denial persists.
"I've walked into plenty of police stations out here to talk about what I'm doing, and their reactions are all the same," Gutenson said. "They don't feel they have a drug issue. The reality is the opioid epidemic is not a new phenomenon. People have been dying out here for years and years. It's only now that it's touching the kids and families of people of some means and who vote that it's become something that needs to be addressed."
Treatment is ideal, Gutenson said. But drug users don't stop using until they are ready. The absence of treatment centers, and the continual fight by suburban residents against them, make it less likely people will seek treatment.
"Naloxone, it keeps people alive, but it keeps them doing the same thing," Gutenson said. "But if you give them another option, then they may make that move. Death changes people. Even if you only die for a minute, it's a scary proposition. Treatment has to be available. If not, you may get to the point where you have it in your mind that, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I wish I had a way out.' If treatment isn't available, there is no way out."
Hartman said she saw firsthand why communities need people like her to make naloxone available to people using drugs. When her ex-boyfriend overdosed, police arrived and administered naloxone, saving his life. But while her boyfriend was at the hospital, police found he had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court.
"He just came out of his overdose, and the police handcuffed him, took him out of the hospital, and took him to jail," Hartman said. "He could have just died, but I didn't get to take him home. I had to watch him get put in handcuffs. It's fantastic that police have naloxone now. But if a person dies because they are scared to call the police because of repercussions like that, I have a huge problem with that."
Building trust without judgment is a key concept in the "harm reduction" philosophy that serves as the basis for the Chicago Recovery Alliance's approach to needle exchange. Suzanne Carlberg-Racich, director of research for the nonprofit group, said trying to force people into treatment is a tactic that often fails.
"The second you judge someone, you've kind of lost them," Carlberg-Racich said. "Harm reduction recognizes that not everybody has the capacity or the will to change overnight. We don't have an agenda that somebody ends up as a person who is abstinent from drugs or goes into treatment. But treatment is one of the many options we might offer or someone might choose. Very often people ask us to help connect them to treatment. But, in the meantime, they can't go into recovery if they die."
Carlberg-Racich said there is no scientific evidence that shows making clean needles and naloxone widely available increases drug use or pushes existing drug users toward injection methods.
"That's like saying silverware is what makes you eat," she said. "The needles are just a vehicle for getting the drug into someone's body. Without us, people would still find a syringe and get the drug into their bodies. They'd keep using the same needle hundreds of times, share dirty needles with other users or even raid the garbage of diabetics."
The research may support Hartman's efforts, but it won't erase the barriers not having a buy-in from the surrounding powers may create. Hartman has not had any contact with county or municipal officials to discuss her plans.
Batavia police, when contacted for an interview for this story, said they were unaware of Hartman's operation, but it deserved some investigation.
Barb Jeffers, executive director of the Kane County Health Department, said Hartman should connect with all the community organizations who are also interested in addressing the opioid epidemic. Jeffers said there's too much potential for something to go wrong when any one person goes it alone.
"What's her backup if she finds herself in a difficult situation?" Jeffers said. "And what's the data showing Batavia needs this kind of operation rather than Elgin or Aurora? I get her passion to help others, but keeping yourself safe and others safe is important, too. And you do have lots of people she could connect with out here who are also very interested in solving this problem."
Hartman said she does intend to contact the police and other community groups about her efforts.
But she will move forward with or without their support.
She already has a Point to Point Kane County Facebook page advertising the availability of clean needles and naloxone by calling (630) 492-1454.
"I'm confident because that's my personality," Hartman said. "I have to be confident. I trust that things will work out. I don't have anything I'm charging money for. I'm not out there to get anyone in trouble. And I'm not scared. For the people who need this service, I'm an ally."