There, but for the grace of God, but for the warning of a heroin dealer, but for the quick action of his mother, a Beaver County man would be among those in the region who fatally overdosed on a powerful batch of fentanyl-laced heroin.
The man in his late 20s, who asked not to be identified, overdosed on the deadly drug a week ago today. Currently, he is a patient at Gateway Rehabilitation Center, where at least two other patients entered after overdosing on the potent drug that has killed as many as 22 in four counties since Jan. 19.
"This is the closest I came to dying," said the man, who has been injecting heroin for six years. "With this being my sixth overdose, God wants me alive for a reason. If it happens again, I'm not coming back. I do feel lucky, I feel blessed."
His brush with death occurred the day before he was scheduled to enter Gateway. He said he had been in rehab "a few times before," and wanted heroin that day so he wouldn't be in the throes of withdrawal when he entered Gateway.
At his worst during his years of addiction, the man had used between 50 and 75 bags of heroin a day. His tolerance for the drug was so high that most recently he had been shooting up six bags at a time.
On this day, he met his drug connection on the North Side and bought a bundle -- 10 bags -- for $60. The stamp bags were white with red letters spelling "Theraflu." At that point, there was no word on the street or in the media that bags so branded contained fentanyl-laced heroin.
"If I had known what it was, I wouldn't have bought it. [The dealer] said to me, 'Be careful. These are potent. Please don't do your normal. Do less,' " the man recalled.
He thought that was strange because the dealer "never said anything like that before. When I was driving home I was wondering, 'Why did he tell me that?' I thought it was weird. Usually, they don't care, they just want your money."
At home, in a locked bathroom, he considered shooting up his usual six bags at one time but instead decided to heed the dealer's warning. He mixed two bags with water, heated it, loaded a syringe and injected the mixture into his arm. He immediately lost consciousness and crashed to the floor. So instantaneous was the OD that the syringe was still stuck in his arm when he was found.
"When I OD'd before, it usually happened within a couple of minutes of shooting it, but this time it was in an instant. As soon as it hit my vein, I was done."
Hearing the thud, his mother rushed to the bathroom and, finding the door locked, broke it down. Her son was already turning blue. She quickly began CPR and was about to call paramedics when he came around. He entered Gateway as scheduled the next day. He said he is fully aware that he is alive only because of a conspiracy of circumstances.
"If [the dealer] wouldn't have told me to be careful, I would have done what I normally do, and my mother would be attending a funeral," he said. "If my mother hadn't been home, I wouldn't be alive.
"If I do two bags of other stuff, that doesn't even get me off of being sick. These two bags could have killed me."
Over the weekend, news broke in the media about the suspected batch of fentanyl-laced heroin causing multiple fatal overdoses. With his near-death experience fresh in his mind, he was shocked when some Gateway patients who heard the news said they wanted to leave the rehab facility to go find some of the powerful drug.
"I said, 'Please don't because you're going to die.' When you leave rehab you have no tolerance. One bag will kill you," he said. He had the same warning for those out on the street now.
He said he knows that those addicted will be lured by something so powerful but "with me [speaking out], hopefully I can save one life.
"I know people are going to try to find this, but I suggest they do not. The end result is not going to be pretty. To me, it's like committing suicide."
Michael A. Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968. First Published January 28, 2014 11:12 PM