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Librarians, Narcan, and the Opioid Epidemic

Chera Kowalski, a librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s McPherson Square Branch, recently gave a TEDMED talk entitled The Critical Role Librarians Play in the Opioid Crisis. Kowalski’s library is located in an area of Philadelphia where heroin use and overdoses are extremely common. In her TEDMED talk, Kowalski discussed the critical role librarians, and all others who work in areas where drug use and overdoses are common, play in addressing and responding to opioid overdoses.

Kowalski, whose parents struggled with and recovered from opioid addiction, became a strong advocate for librarians to play a role in ensuring community safety from overdoses. According to TEDMED, “After witnessing drug overdoses firsthand at her library and the nearby park, Chera volunteered to receive training in overdose defense through Prevention Point Philadelphia and now advocates for training for other librarians and community members to learn how to administer naloxone—a life-saving drug that reverses the effects of opioids—to people in distress.” In her TEDMED talk, Kowalski recounts the “day-to-day reality of life on the frontline of the opioid crisis and advocates for each of us to find new ways to keep our communities safe and healthy.”

Libraries in particular are areas where people often use illicit drugs like heroin. Darran Simon, in a 2017 CNN article entitled The opioid epidemic is so bad that librarians are learning how to treat overdoses, explains, “Long viewed as guardians of safe spaces for children, library staff members like Kowalski have begun taking on the role of first responder in drug overdoses. In at least three major cities — Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco — library employees now know, or are set to learn, how to use the drug naloxone, usually known by its brand name Narcan, to help reverse overdoses.” In Kensington, where Kowalski’s library is located, more and more people from out of state have begun to frequent the location seeking cheaper heroin in Philadelphia.

The problem became so bad that the library had to close for three days after discarded needles clogged the sewer system. After recounting one incident where Kowalski saved a man’s life by quickly administering Narcan, she explained, “I understand where they’re coming from and why they’re doing it. I just keep faith and hope that one day they get the chance and the opportunity to get clean. A lot of things have to line up perfectly for people to enter recovery long-term.”

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