Tim Persico was at his in-laws’ house in Holland, Bucks County, this spring, when he picked up a copy of the Inquirer and read my column about the Kensington librarians who trained themselves to revive overdose victims with Narcan — and were saving lives.
One sad detail stuck with him: In their training, and in their experiences at the McPherson Square branch, the library staff could tell whether victims had overdosed on heroin or fentanyl by the sound they made when they fell to the floor.
He took the paper home, to Orange County, N.Y., where the Wilkes-Barre native and ex-Philly resident now serves as chief of staff to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney. The Democratic congressman has been working to fight the overdose epidemic that has engulfed his community, just as it has everywhere.
Persico and the congressman wondered if their own librarians might be facing the same problem — if it was happening in Philly, it might be happening in Orange County.
The opioid crisis had landed in the bathrooms and the reading rooms of the Thrall library in downtown Middletown, N.Y. — an old manufacturing hub, population 33,000, nestled among the Shawangunk Mountains. A handful of times, library director Matthew Pfisterer had to call police to save overdose victims at the library. The police station is just down the block, so the response times were good. But the librarians worried. They wanted to be better prepared.
And so, like the McPherson librarians 155 miles to the south, they sought out Narcan training. And within weeks of receiving it, Pfisterer saved a woman dying outside his library.
When Maloney’s staff called the Thrall library, they knew they were seeing a trend. And I have, too. After writing about McPherson last year, I’ve heard from librarians across the country who were seeing overdoses in their own branches, as far away as Alaska.
“The opioid epidemic is showing up every day in unexpected places and demands unexpected solutions,” Maloney said by email. The example set by the librarians at home and in Philly convinced him he had a model for a national law.
He drew up HR 4259: “The Lifesaving Librarians Act.” It’s designed to get libraries in high-intensity drug-trafficking areas Narcan — and the training to use it — through federal grants. It’s a great idea. Everyone should have Narcan — especially librarians, the stewards of public spaces where anyone and everyone can take refuge.
But it also shows the depths of a crisis that continues to spiral.
“It’s an unfortunate necessity at this point,” said McPherson librarian Chera Kowalski, who last spring saved six people.
The bill could help Philly, where overdose deaths surge and where the library system — outside McPherson, which operates in the heart of the opioid crisis and gets Narcan from the city — doesn’t have a regular supply. The city works to give Narcan to the libraries in need of it.
Because they don’t have an official supply, they also don’t have an official count of how many city librarians are armed with the lifesaving spray, said Lynn Williamson, the chief of neighborhood services for the Free Library of Philadelphia. But Williamson does keep numbers on just how many times city librarians needed the antidote last year: There were 14 overdoses at city libraries last year, she said. Ten at McPherson alone.
Right now, the bill is in committee. Maloney’s people say its best chance of passing is if it gets wrapped up in a larger legislative package on the opioid crisis. (Which means President Trump is going to have to get off the golf course and do something beyond making concerned noises from the White House.)
It can’t come soon enough. And Philly’s representatives in Congress should get right behind it. Even with all the attention on McPherson over the summer, even with the renewed police presence and the TV cameras, a man overdosed in the bathroom in October, with a cop at the door. Librarians provided the second dose that revived him.
Turns out, the man was from Upstate New York.