As national media descend, the heroin catastrophe at Philly library worsens

Chera Kowalski tends to a woman thought to be in distress in McPherson Square. Working in the city as a librarian, in two months Kowalski has helped save eight lives.

On her last three shifts at the library in McPherson Square, Chera Kowalski has helped save the lives of three people overdosing on heroin.

She and the other librarians at the Kensington branch had told me two weeks ago that they feared that when the weather warmed, the crisis on the library lawn would grow worse than they could imagine.

It has.

Kowalski, 33, who keeps the overdose-reversing drug, Narcan, behind the circulation desk, has run for the spray as many times in the last week as she did last month. In two months, she has helped save eight people. It is becoming as much a part of her daily routine as finding reference numbers and helping students log on to a computer.

Camera icon Tom GralisH / Staff Photographer
Kensington branch librarian Chera Kowalski.

And each day the crowd of young heroin users on the lawn – from all over, with cardboard boxes and sleeping bags and wheeled luggage – grows.

And so do the national media. Since I wrote about the North Philly library staffers who took it upon themselves to be trained in administering Narcan, the crisis at McPherson grows more surreal by the day. The descending reporters don’t have to wait long for material.

On Wednesday, as an NBC Nightly News crew was packing up its gear after a day of taping, a call rose from the lawn and Kowalski went running. She administered two doses of Narcan to a man who had mixed meth and heroin.

On Thursday, a bulky young man named John, who said he grew up in the neighborhood, gave CNN a 45-minute interview. Then he went back to his cardboard mattress and overdosed on heroin. Kowalski went running.

In the last two weeks, I’ve met Kowalski four times at the library. Three of those times, she has rushed to aid overdose victims. The librarians think there is a bad batch going around.

There’s an opioid epidemic in Philly. But there is a catastrophe on the lawn of McPherson Square. And right now, the best hope for the people there is a young librarian and a security guard who watches for overdoses from the library’s historic terrace like a ship captain scanning the horizon for icebergs.

For the last two weeks, Kowalski has been at the heart of the storm. The spotlight makes her uneasy. She says she is just doing her job, which at McPherson now means saving lives. And answering question after question from me and other reporters and camera crews who ask her to hold the Narcan pack in better light.

She is getting tired of people asking her how she is faring.

Camera icon tom gralish / Staff Photographer
Kowalski and security guard Sterling Davis break up a disagreement among after school students in McPherson Square.

“I am more than willing to say, ‘Yes, I choose to do this’ – and I’m OK with doing this,” she told me while sitting on a bench outside the library before her Thursday shift. She laughs quickly and favors punk bands, Marvel superheroes, and oversized sweaters. The Temple grad harbored dreams of being an English professor, until she interned at the Free Library in college and fell in love with the job.

She chooses to do what she does for the victims in the park and the kids in Kensington, she told me two weeks ago, because of her own experiences growing up in Delco with two parents who fought through heroin addiction.

She can count nearly 20 kids from Ridley High School who are addicted or dead from opioids. Her family struggled. She knows what it’s like to want for more than just the bare essentials, what it’s like to feel helpless.

Both parents have been clean for 20 years. Her dad, a Vietnam veteran and a truck driver, retired a few years ago. He needed a liver transplant in part from his years of addiction. Her mom, who worked as a waitress and other jobs, recently earned a business degree. She draws from their strength, she said. They are fighters.

Both support her work, though they sometimes wish she’d transfer to a new branch. There may be a breaking point, she knows, but she hasn’t hit it yet.

“I think it’s feeling helpless as a child,” she said. “I think it’s motivated me to choose this profession – and sometimes do what needs to be done.”

When her parents couldn’t be there for her, others stood up. Teachers, social workers – people who may have interacted with her only briefly, might not have known the full story, but made a impact.

She tries to do that for the kids at McPherson. And now she rushes to those dying in the park. She wants to help the people on the lawn – but she also wants to do her day job. And in Kensington that’s a lot more than suggesting books. It’s helping the adults fill out job applications or linking them to housing and social services. Or having the time to connect with a child for whom the library may be their only refuge.

This attention is only good, she says, if it results in action.

Camera icon tom gralish / Staff Photographer
Kowalski and security guard Sterling Davis.

The city says it’s taking steps. On Friday, a city spokeswoman told me officials are dispatching more outreach workers to the neighborhood, supplying Narcan for the library and in July will be deploying a new police mobile command center at the park, which they say will serve as a “hub for social services.”

They need all that and more. The country is watching now.

Kowalski and the library staff cannot be the only ones running for help.

Earlier last week, Kowalski had been trying to catch up on work she has missed with all the attention – and all the overdoses.

Then, the security guard, Sterling Davis, called. And Kowalski ran for the Narcan. The man’s face was purple. She gave him a dose and his color returned. Then he turned purple again. She gave a second dose. And the man woke up.

“Someone is going to die,” Davis said afterward. “She’s not going to be able to save everyone.”