On the street, drug users have a simple name for it: “The bomb.”
Emergency room doctors call it a killer.
“It goes to their central nervous system, and they almost immediately stop breathing,” says Dr. Chuck Thomas with Norwegian American Hospital in Chicago.
Super-charged heroin, mixed with the powerful painkiller Fentanyl — up to 100 times stronger than morphine — is rampaging through drug communities. It’s already killed nearly 200 people this year.
Police have seen a spike in overdose deaths in cities from Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit in the Midwest, to Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., and Wilmington, Del.
Thursday in Chicago, law enforcement agencies from across the country discussed plans to address the threat.
“If you are addicted to heroin, there’s never been a better time to stop,” says Scott Burns of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Fentanyl is not being used to cut the heroin, but to enhance it. It's a high-potency game of Russian roulette. And in the drug world, death only increases demand.
“You've got a novice drug user, who thought on a lark they would try a nickel bag, and now they're dead,” says Dr. Thomas.
“I feel like it's a mass murder thing,” says Val Schild, whose 19-year-old son, Kevin, died in April. “Why are they killing all these kids? I don't understand.”
The Chicago Recovery Alliance supplies clean needles and other services to addicts. Cheryl Hall says dealers have tricked users into thinking the drug offers a unique high.
“People will go to any lengths to get it,” she says. “Even death. Even death.”
In many emergency rooms, the antidote for “the bomb” is taped to the walls, at the ready.
“I have now become a pro at handling heroin overdoses, and not by choice,” says Laura Gallagher, a nurse at Norwegian.
Now nurses like Gallagher know it’s not a matter of if, but when the next victim arrives.