Medill Newsmakers: Use of Narcan helps reduce opioid overdose crisis in Chicago

A box of Narcan used to counteract an opioid overdose is carried by the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force during outreach on the corner of Central Avenue and Lake Street. (Ryan Hayes-Owens/MEDILL)

By Ryan Hayes-Owens
Medill Reports

The 95th Street “L” station in Roseland will soon have a first-of-its-kind, free Narcan vending machine to treat CTA riders who overdose.


Hello and welcome to Medill Newsmakers. Thank you for joining us. I’m Hayes Owens.

Every year, drug overdoses claim the lives of thousands. A large percentage of fatalities are caused by opioid overdoses. 

According to the CDC, about 70% of all drug overdose deaths in 2019 were attributed to opioids. Lockdown orders were in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and during that time, the number of opioid overdoses in Chicago rose by 20%.

Emergency room physicians’ number one priority is patient care, and sometimes that means managing overdoses. Hear from  ER Dr. Mobola Kukoyi as she addresses ER patient care and overdose procedures.

Kukoyi: To be honest, I probably see an overdose every shift or every other shift in the Chicago area. It’s pretty rampant. Opiates are usually the more likely to result in what we call a respiratory depression, where people stop breathing, and that’s when we see them. Things like cocaine, for example, because cocaine is a stimulant, you have people maybe come in chest pain or rapid heartbeat, but not typically unresponsive. So when you get to your opiates, because they depress the breathing centers of the brain, that’s when they’ve come in with a very, very sleepy or frankly unresponsive.

Hayes Owens: Kukoyi explains standard course of treatment for patients.

Kukoyi: So when we get a patient that comes in with a suspected overdose and they’re having trouble with their breathing or they’re unresponsive, that is an emergency. And so the standard course of treatment is to give them a medication that helps to reverse the effect of the opiates in the brain, and the most common medication that is called naloxone. 

Hayes Owens: Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is used to treat patients experiencing an overdose of opioids. While naloxone is helpful, Kukoyi says she’s limited on what she can do in the ER. 

Kukoyi: We have substance abuse counselors talk to them. We give them drug rehab options. So from an emergency perspective, that’s what I can do. We know that mental health is grossly underfunded. We need more money. We need more specialists. And so just really dedicating harm reduction programs and just funding them.

Hayes Owens: While doctors can only assist patients through a medical lens, one family member understands this illness on a more personal level.

In 2020, Tyra Whitney’s sister-in-law lost her life to addiction.

Tyra Whitney: Sarah’s addiction started in 2016. She went and got a tooth pulled, and they gave her painkillers. And that’s how she became addicted. So her addiction started with painkillers. 

Hayes Owens: Whitney, who is a producer at WLS-TV and unmarried without children, says she never imagined her life would be like this.

Whitney: If you ask me 10 years ago where I thought my life would be 10 years from there, I would never say it, “Oh, I’ll be helping my brother raise two kids.”

Hayes Owens: Whitney says her personal experience has changed how she writes stories about addiction. 

Whitney: I’m more cognizant of the language we use when we’re talking about certain stories. For example, if you know there’s like a drug trade in a warehouse, I try to be very cognizant about how we report on it and the wording that we use because we don’t know the person’s situation.

Hayes Owens: Whitney says she wants Sarah’s memory to live on. 

Whitney: I think it’s important for people to know that addicts are people first, that they are families like Sarah was a mom. She was a sister. She was a daughter. She was a friend. She was such a beautiful person before her addiction took over.

Hayes Owens: Opioid addiction affects many families, and two organizations are working to educate Chicago residents on how to save a life. 

Just last year, the Forest Park mayor urged other city officials to assist with crime and overdoses occurring on the CTA Blue Line, and organizations like the West Side Task Force suggested that Narcan should be supplied on the trains, and now it will. 

The CTA plans to install a Narcan vending machine at the 95th Red Line station. If successful, there will be five machines across the city paid by a CDC grant. According to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, about 2,000 people died last year from opioid overdose. While community organizations were happy about the city’s decision, they also questioned the vending machine’s pilot location. 

Keith Davis: That’s progress. I just wish it would have been in the area that’s heavily affected, but you know, we gotta start somewhere. At one point in time, it was a closed door as far as a suggestion was concerned, but with them accepting or not accepting it. Now that the program is up and running, possibly it will be implemented where it is needed.

Dr. Audrey Tanksley: The biggest thing out of the decision that I questioned a little was why the Red Line station on 95th. But there are reasons why it would benefit being there too, but I do know that there is a significant problem on the Blue Line. And the fact that Forest Park wasn’t the first to get one was interesting. 

Hayes Owens: The machine will include harm reduction tools such as fentanyl testing strips. In order to access the vending machine, you will need a code that can be found on the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Chicago is working to increase access to resources and decrease the percentage of drug overdoses in the city. Families like Whitney’s and organizations like the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force and the Human Resources Developmental Institute say they will continue to educate Chicago residents on addiction and drug usage safety. If you or someone you know struggles with addiction and would like access to free Narcan and or recovery assistance, call the West Side Opioid Task Force and/or HRDI. Thanks for watching, I’m Hayes Owens.

Ryan Hayes-Owens is a graduate student in the video & broadcast specialization. Connect with her on her website