Updated: Tuesday, August 8, 2017, 4:02 PM
Elvis Rosado is afraid to miss even one day of work. If he does, he fears someone will die of a heroin overdose – someone he could have helped. And that is not something he wants to live with. He tears up at the mention of it.
In the last year, Elvis, education and outreach coordinator at the Prevention Point needle exchange in Kensington, has saved 34 people with the overdose-reversing antidote naloxone.
Enough people for six starting basketball squads.
Enough to all but fill the seats of a city bus.
And the number stretches closer to a thousand if you trace the map of overdoses to include all those saved by people he has trained to use the life-saving spray: Prevention Point outreach workers, neighborhood librarians, college students, city clean-up workers, business owners, parents.
“Everybody and anybody,” he says.
Elvis keeps track of the people he has saved by number. They started in bunches last summer. Suburban kids with backpacks stepping off the El. Users from the neighborhood. People who thought they had managed their addictions. Then came fentanyl.
No. 19 was a young woman this spring, unconscious in the passenger seat of a car that had pulled up to Prevention Point. She had stopped breathing for so long that Elvis was sure she would be the first to die on him.
After she gasped back to life, Elvis cried.
Nos. 29 through 31 each fell on the sidewalk last month within feet of each other. Elvis jumped back and forth among the victims. As he did, someone yelled from around the corner.
A woman lay face down.
Elvis’ story is about two kinds of hope. It’s about the obvious kind: The hope found in the heroism of the advocate and his colleagues fighting their hardest and saving lives amid a spiraling crisis and a city response still struggling to meet it. They are single-handedly staving off death.
Then there’s the hope found in his own story: One of recovery, that shows the impact of even one life saved. That one, Elvis now uses to provide hope to the people he meets on the avenue – before someone becomes the 35th person he has to bring back. (No. 33 was a man on the Prevention Point steps, who had his own Narcan. No. 34, just Tuesday afternoon, was a young guy in an alley across the street.) Or the first person he loses.
Elvis is 52, broad, bald, and tattooed. He saves his anger for those who don’t see people suffering in addiction or dying on the avenue as human beings. For those who want to push addicted people around like cattle, instead of working to save them. Those times his anger is righteous.
To people struggling like he once did, Elvis offers kindness borne from experience.
“He is so passionate and real,” said Marion Parkinson, the supervisor of McPherson Square Library, where this year Elvis trained the staff to administer Narcan. They have used it to save six people. “He tells his own story and what comes out is the passion he has for other human beings.”
Elvis grew up at Seventh and Cambria Streets, the heart of what would later be called the Badlands. His mother, a seamstress, worked two jobs to support three boys. When his father worked, his earnings fed his addictions, not the family, Elvis said. By age 9, his dad had introduced him to beer. By 11 or 12, Elvis had moved onto other things, methamphetamine and marijuana.
And from there the arc of his life bent with the weight of his addiction – and the trauma that accompanied it. Cocaine, then crack, blanketed Kensington. When Elvis wasn’t using – “everything,” he said of his drugs of choice – he was selling. He watched friends die from bullets and bad doses, and overdosed himself, nearly dying on a SEPTA bus. He slept in a neighborhood cemetery and abandoned buildings. By 27, Elvis lay naked on the cold floor of a jail cell, fighting through withdrawal, vowing to be a good father to his baby on the way and soon to be born — the father that he had not had. To bend back the arc of his life.
“You are not worthless.”
That is the message Elvis delivers most.
“I know what it’s like to be at the receiving end of ‘You ain’t nothing,’ ” he said at his Prevention Point desk Saturday, after outreach on the avenue. “I remind people they are still human beings. They may live in a bad situation, but they are not worthless. Everyone deserves that moment.”
From that prison cell, where he served a year for dealing, and after the treatment that followed, Elvis went right to Prevention Point in the early 1990s. At first, he volunteered as an HIV-outreach worker, then by handing out clean needles in shooting galleries during the crack epidemic.
While fighting through the trauma of his own recovery – the “drug dreams, they’re normal,” he warns clients fresh into recovery – Elvis found worth in his sobriety. And then in using it to help others.
“We plant seeds of hope,” he said, “and teach others how to plant them.”
Now, amid this catastrophe, he saves all the lives he can. And keeps going. And teaches others to do the same.
For a time, after every rescue, Elvis and his coworkers would huddle together – to make sure everyone was OK. It is a traumatic thing, to save a life. But he and his staff don’t gather like that anymore. Rescues happen too often these days.