Saving Lives on a Washington Heights Corner

Clara Cardelle has saved the life of several Latino men who have overdosed on heroin in Washington Heights. The Upper Manhattan resident, born in Cuba, has resuscitated addicts by injecting them with the antidote Naloxone. (Photo by Pedro F. Frisneda via El Diario)

Only three weeks ago, Clara Cardelle saved the life of a Latino man who overdosed on heroin in Washington Heights. However, that was not the first time the Upper Manhattan resident, born in Cuba, resuscitated an addict with the antidote Naloxone.

“They were not breathing, they had their stomachs almost stuck to their backs, their faces were blue and they had no pulse. Technically, they were dead, but I resuscitated them by injecting them with Naloxone and by giving them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the ambulance arrived,” she said.

Cardelle said that she has been a heroin user for the last seven years and that she learned to apply the antidote through a training she received at the Washington Heights CORNER Project (WHCP), a community organization that has come to signify the difference between life and death for many residents of the area.

“I went in there because I was trying to hide, because I was ashamed. I did not want people to notice that I had relapsed […] I was born and raised three blocks from this center, and I did all types of drugs for more than 20 years: marijuana, heroin, crack… everything,” said Cardelle, 50, who said that her addiction to opioids started when she took the painkiller Percocet, which a doctor prescribed to her to treat the pain caused by hernias in her back and neck.

“I ended up injecting heroin, and that is when I said: ‘Enough. I need help,’ and went to the CORNER Project,” she said, adding that she went from being a client at WHCP to a bilingual community outreach worker at the organization five years ago.

For more than a decade, the WHCP community health center has been dedicated to offering support to people suffering from drug addiction, particularly users of dangerous opioids such as fentanyl and heroin.

Many people have been resuscitated after an opioid overdose at the center, which offers other services including clean needle exchange and access to Naloxone (under the brand name Narcan), an antidote that reverts the effects of an opioid overdoses.

“I go out to the street to find people who use drugs. I recognize them because it is as if I was looking in the mirror,” said Cardelle, who added that 85 percent of the people she assists are Latino or African-American.

Controversial bathroom

Inside the WHCP facilities, one area has caused a great deal of controversy: a bathroom in which addicts are able to inject heroin in a safe environment.

Although at first sight it resembles a regular bathroom, heroin paraphernalia and clean needles are available for use.

In order to prevent fatal overdoses among users, the bathroom features a clock and an intercom through which a WHCP employee checks every three minutes if the person inside is safe.

If the user does not respond, a trained staff member can press a button to immediately open the door and, if the user has overdosed, provide a dose of Naloxone.

WHCP Executive Director Liz Evans said that the purpose of providing this space is not to promote drug use but to ensure that addicts can inject heroin in a safe manner and under some kind of supervision instead of doing so in public restrooms or other places – such as parks, behind bushes or under bridges – where they could fatally overdose, far away from anyone who can help them.

“We know that there is a risk because we are giving them clean tools and they have access to a bathroom where an overdose may happen, but our program is monitoring them to ensure that no one dies,” clarified Evans.

According to reports from the New York health authorities, nearly two-thirds of all drug users in the city turn to vacant buildings, cars or public restrooms to inject their drugs.

“Only 1 of every 10 people who are addicts is in treatment, meaning that 9 of them are active addicts. That is why our ‘harm reduction’ philosophy is so important: We don’t want people to hurt themselves while they are using drugs or to hurt others,” explained Evans.

WHCP Executive Director Liz Evans shows the contents of a Naloxone kit. (Photo via El Diario)

Field work

The WHCP started in the streets in 2005 as a community outreach group offering a needle exchange program for drug users. For that reason, the work they perform today is not confined to the four walls of their Upper Manhattan headquarters. The organization’s volunteers and counselors often go out to the neighborhood’s streets to help those who lack a place to go for help or guidance and who are homeless.

The needle exchange program is worth mentioning. Clean needles are handed out in the area surrounding the George Washington Bridge Bus Station and the neighborhoods of Hamilton Heights and Inwood.

The WHCP also has a program in which staff members collect used syringes and other hazardous waste related to drug injection.

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WHCP volunteers gave a tour to El Diario, during which more than 24 used needles were collected from behind bushes under a bridge in the area and later discarded. (Photo via El Diario)

According to Evans, the resources her organization provides do not just seek to reduce the risks associated with drug use, but also to improve the health and quality of life of addicts in an environment free of prejudice and stigma, with a focus on making patients more proactive. In addition, they offer HIV and hepatitis C tests, and educate people on the risk of becoming infected with these viruses while they use intravenous drugs and share needles.

“The problem is not just overdosing, but also hepatitis C, HIV and many other things that can happen to you. That is why needles must never be shared with anyone,” said Cardelle.

The WHCP is part of the Injection Drug Users Health Alliance (IDUHA), a coalition of 14 needle exchange programs operating across all five New York City boroughs.

Cheap drug

Cardelle said that each opioid pill such as Percocet is sold in the street for $10. In order to feel the desired effect, users need five of them, or $50 per dose. On the other hand, a dose of heroin is only $10. That is why many people choose to use the latter, despite the risk of not knowing if it has been mixed or altered with another substance.

Where to go for help

The WHCP is located on the second floor of 566 West 181st St., on the southeast corner of St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights. For more information or guidance, call (212) 923-7600.

The WHCP has a help hotline available 24 hours at (800) 761-6990. Information regarding the needle exchange program is also available through this number.

Residents of the area near the George Washington Bridge Bus Station and the neighborhoods of Hamilton Heights and Inwood can also have access to the services offered by the WHCP (cornerproject.org).

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  1. Pingback: – Washington Heights Residents Concerned about Drug Injection Sites

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