At TedX Cincinnati, Hamilton Co. coroner will lay bare the horrors of the heroin epidemic

Lakshmi Sammarco sees the human toll every day
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-16 06:43:19-04

CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco was driving on Interstate 75 one day with her daughter when she glanced into the car driving next to her. The driver had a tourniquet around his left arm.

Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco (Photo provided by Mark Byron)

In his right hand he held a syringe, which he was trying to inject into a vein as he drove.

Sammarco's car is equipped with a siren, so she briefly flipped it on. Startled, the man dropped the syringe and began looking around for a police car.

Sammarco said she followed him for a while and called in a description of the car to the police, but she doesn't know if he was ever stopped.

The coroner plans to tell stories like that Saturday, June 17, as one of the featured speakers at TEDx Cincinnati's eighth Main Stage Event, starting at 5 p.m. at Memorial Hall, 1225 Elm St., in Over-the-Rhine.

TEDx Cincinnati is a volunteer-based organization with a license from TED, a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually through short lectures known as TED talks. The acronym TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.

Other speakers scheduled for Saturday's event include Prerna Ghandi, a University of Cincinnati student who survived an acid attack in her hometown of Rohtak, India.

Sammarco was asked to speak because of her expertise in the heroin epidemic, said Jami Edelheit, who organizes and produces TEDx Cincinnati events.

"I think it's going to be incredible hearing directly from her about the impact it has had on the community," she said.

Sammarco plans to talk about the human toll the epidemic is taking on the Tri-State region, and how it spreads far beyond just the addicts who are overdosing.

When she became coroner five years ago, she said, her office typically handled between one and three overdose deaths per week. It now handles between 10 and 15.

Both 2015 and 2016 have seen about 400 overdose deaths, she said, which might lead one to believe the epidemic has leveled off. But that doesn't take into account that first responders have administered three times more doses of naloxone, an opiate antidote.

Without those doses, she said, she's certain overdose deaths would have been more than 1,000 last year.

People don't realize how deeply embedded heroin use is in every community of the region, she said.

One can see that in the number of cases of children being neglected. It's prompted a 16-17 percent increase in the number of children whose care the state is supervising, she said.

In January, Sammarco said, an 11-year-old girl had been taking care of her siblings for more than 24 hours. When they returned home, she found her mother and father, dead of an overdose, lying on the living room floor.

The girl reported the deaths herself, making a 911 call while holding the phone in one hand and her 7-month-old sibling in the other.

"I can't imagine the kind of nightmares that's going to cause," Sammarco said.

In 2012, the National Institutes for Health estimated that every 25 minutes, a baby is born addicted to opioids, Sammarco said. "I would guess it's triple that now," she added.

Those babies stay in the hospital an average of 17 days, undergoing treatment for opioid withdrawal. Who knows what effect that childhood trauma will have on them 15 or 20 years later, Sammarco said.

The epidemic is taking a toll on her staff too, she said. The office's four forensic pathologists have trouble keeping up with the demand for autopsies.

"We used to be done with autopsies before noon," she said. "Now, we're going well into the afternoon."

Recently, the staff experienced two accidental needle-sticks in the space of two weeks, she said, something that happens when people get tired and overworked.

The epidemic is burning out and depressing everyone, she said.

"We feel like no matter what we do to get the message out, we're not seeing an impact. We're not stemming the flow … it keeps getting worse and worse."

Sammarco doesn't have any easy answers to the epidemic, except to note that every dollar spent on prevention saves $11-$12 on treatment. One encouraging sign is that recent surveys of high school kids show that they're not interested in trying opioids.

"Our only hope right now is that teens and people in their young 20s are smart enough to stay away from it," she said.

Click here to sign up for Saturday's event and for more information.