As I wait behind an older gentlemen with a torn T-shirt and several holes in his shoes, I remember a similar day many months ago when I was in the position he is now: digging bundles of dull syringes out of a bag, and asking the nurse for extra supplies.
LifePoint, Tucson's syringe-exchange program, has been around for more than a decade and is one of the only programs in the state that provides damage control for intravenous drug users. Since getting clean and painfully detoxing from heroin, I have a new perspective on how helpful syringe-exchange programs are, both for the community and for users. I was one of LifePoint's clients, exchanging needles every week for more than 13 months.
I recently went back to the mobile clinic I frequented so many times. When I boarded the mobile LifePoint vehicle, I noticed two 10-gallon buckets of new, never-used syringes, and boxes of items needed for successful, safe injections: small, sterile aluminum cookers; cotton balls to drop in the cookers and absorb the chemicals; tiny individual containers of sterile water; tourniquets; abscess kits; alcohol pads; and bleach. These items are packaged and ready for clients to pick up.
I immediately recognized the kind face of Miguel Soto, the senior communicable disease investigator at the Pima County Health Department and the coordinator of the mobile syringe unit; he was one of the staff members when I was a client. Miguel has a lot of experience working with at-risk populations; before coming to LifePoint, he worked at COPE Community Services and the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation (SAAF).
"They are very smart, very resilient people. They care about their health and are taking an active interest in protecting themselves," Miguel says about the people who come to the mobile clinic for assistance.
There is no judgment from the staff. They are concerned and respectful, accepting of anyone who shows up with at least one used syringe and a need for help.
Every Tuesday and Friday, the LifePoint van parks at an undisclosed location in central Tucson. (Clients find the van via word of mouth.) The mobile unit is open from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.; clients walk up to the door and deposit their used syringes in a container (which is later incinerated). They then wait while Celina Lopez, the public health assistant, bags up the same number of needles they just gave up.
"This allows the clients buy-in: We have to know they are serious about being safe," says Miguel.
Celina asks the client if they would like any other supplies, and the client is on their way. The whole exchange takes less than five minutes.
In addition to providing sterile supplies, the team (which also includes nurse Kim Igou) helps their clients in any way possible, including referrals to COPE, SAAF, and methadone and detox services. They also provide testing for hepatitis C and STDs (including HIV), vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, and tetanus shots. "That's what you want in a needle exchange," says Miguel, "a one-stop shop."
These programs often confront the stigma of aiding addicts by providing users with needles. But critics should remember the countless dollars in medical expenses that are saved every year, not to mention the lives that are saved.
Until they make the decision to get clean, users are still going to use. LifePoint makes it possible for them to protect their health. It is a complex program that responds to a complex problem.
There are no answers to the question of why I got addicted to heroin—at least no answers that can be understood by anyone who has not been through the nightmare of addiction. I wanted distraction. Blissful oblivion. I got addicted to heroin through a bad decision, a lack of support and a lack of activities. I was curious. I was depressed.
When you are an addict, sober people are hard to find; it seems like everyone around you is using and wrapped up in themselves. It is so refreshing to have someone ask about you—it can brighten your whole day. I know firsthand that prevention programs like LifePoint significantly reduce harm from substance abuse.
For more information on LifePoint or to make a donation, call 791-7676.
Stacey Pinnell, 19, is a youth apprentice journalist at VOICES: Community Stories Past and Present Inc. For more information, visit www.voicesinc.org.