Dr. Oz at Philly's heroin encampments: 'I just walked into hell'

America’s best-known physician, Mehmet Oz, came to Philadelphia’s rail-side heroin encampments Monday for the kind of medical education seen by few doctors, let alone his daytime television audience.

“I just walked into hell,” said Oz, wearing jeans and hiking boots, as he picked his way along big piles of discarded syringes along the Conrail tracks in West Kensington.

He appeared genuinely shocked at what he found along the Gurney Street corridor, a stretch of squalor that extends two-thirds of a mile along a busy freight rail line. An estimated 150 people who use heroin live along the rails that sit in a filthy gulch.

Accompanied by law enforcement and city officials, Oz was shown the highlights, including a makeshift shack known as the “doctor’s office” because it’s where people go who need help shooting up. A hand-written sign on the way announced in English and Spanish: “Attention! Service must be payed (sic) before any is given! No exceptions!”

“Just like a real doctor’s office,” quipped Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon before becoming a best-selling author and TV host. “Is the doctor around?”

The "doctor" seemed to have left in a hurry. Needles, still primed with heroin, lay abandoned on a makeshift table.

Nearby, the syndicated TV host saw a small mirror propped against a tree, and asked what it was for. It’s there so heroin users can more easily find an available neck vein, explained Gary Tuggle, special agent in charge of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operations in Philadelphia.

Tuggle led Oz, his crew, city officials, and reporters under the Mascher Street bridge, where newly posted “No Trespassing” signs were nailed to trees and hung on utility poles every 10 yards.

Tuggle told Oz that heroin addicts from as far away as Maine and Florida converge on the area near the railroad line.

“Why here?” Oz asked.

“Purity and price,” Tuggle replied. “It’s a matter of economics, that’s what drives them in. It’s pure and cheap.”

Oz shook his head.

“What if you built two large walls on either side of the tracks?” Oz asked. “Would that solve the problem?”

It was Tuggle’s turn to shake his head.

“That would only push it someplace else,” Tuggle said.

The city has been negotiating with Conrail for the last nine months over cleaning out the area and building a fence to keep people from getting to the gulch, which is largely concealed by trees and scrub.  The two sides have been at an impasse over who is responsible for the squalor.

“If both sides are going to spend millions of dollars to clean this up, we have to make sure this is secure, or we’re going to be doing this all over again in a few months,” said city Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis, who was later interviewed by Oz on camera. “They have to take responsibility.”

The railroad has said it would pay for a massive cleanup and a fence along the worst section of the drug corridor. “We stand ready to resume productive good faith discussions with the City of Philadelphia to help us accomplish this shared goal,” Conrail said in a statement Monday.

As Oz spoke to city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley for the cameras, a Conrail representative chatted briefly with DiBerardinis near a pile of discarded needles.

Oz, a professor of surgery at Columbia University, has been sharply rebuked in recent years by his professional peers. He has been accused of endorsing unproven treatments and hosting celebrities who have promoted questionable health practices for profit. The episode shot Monday, Oz said, will be broadcast the first week of May.  The syndicated Dr. Oz Show is shown at 1 p.m. weekdays locally on Fox29.

Steve Johnson, 49, came to the tracks earlier Monday to score his morning fix. Seeing the crowd, he walked two blocks up the hill and bought a $10 bag of heroin.

Learning the crowd was there with Oz, he went back to ask for help to straighten out his life.

Johnson said he once made a good living as a contractor in South Jersey, where he built commercial buildings and fancy homes.

“I thought I was rich and powerful,” Johnson said. Five years ago, he said, his girlfriend shared a needle with him. One hit and he was hooked. He lost his family, his house, and his business.

Now he panhandles to pay for his habit.

Johnson told Oz he feels safe in the encampment.

“I can cop and get high right here,” he said. “It’s governed down here.”

He said other drug users carry naloxone, the easy-to-use antidote for overdoses. There’s an unofficial code of conduct in the gulch, he said.

“At other places, if you nod off [become unconscious] people will steal needles right out of your arm,” Johnson told Oz.

Oz walked Johnson down to the tracks, looked into his eyes, and asked how he protects himself.

Johnson pulled a box cutter out of his pocket and flashed the tiny blade.

“You’re going to  have to kill me before you steal my dope,” Johnson said.

Oz told Johnson he would get him help finding work and a home if he could get clean.

Johnson said he has gone through treatment dozens of times.

“I’m homeless. I spend 30 days in treatment and I’m back out on the street,” Johnson said. “They help you get clean and then they throw you right back on the street. Nobody helps you after.

"Each person is addicted for a different reason,” Johnson told Oz. “Treating people in a large group, one on 30, doesn’t do it.”

After Oz went to speak with city officials, Johnson went back under the bridge. As the doctor’s camera crew gathered around, the former builder prepared his dose and shot it into his arm. 

“I don’t know why they want us out of here,” Johnson said minutes later, looking relieved as the drug took effect. “We’re out of the way. You’d think they’d want to herd us here.”

Contact Sam Wood at samwood@phillynews.com, 215-854-2796 or @samwoodiii