I am a social worker at IU Health Bloomington Hospital. I completed an internship with Positive Link, our HIV service organization, several years ago. I also have familiarity with Syringe Exchange Programs as I recently have been doing research in this area, due to the fact that relatively large numbers of patients have begun to be admitted with Hep C, cellulitis, endocarditis, and heroin overdose; we knew early last year we had an emerging IV drug use problem on our hands. Even given this, it came as somewhat of a shock to learn of the increasing HIV transmission rate in Scott County. It was even more alarming to learn that all of the infections were being transmitted through needle sharing and injection drug use. I knew I had to try to be part of helping in this crisis. On April 21st I received an email, as part of the Monroe County Medical Reserve Corps, that volunteers were desperately needed to help. I fortunately was able to make the drive down and participate.
May 2nd, 2015. It was a beautiful spring morning, sunny and calm. I had awoken early, in order to volunteer at the Scott County Health Department's “One Stop Shop”, in response to the massive public health HIV crisis. Driving into Austin, I was struck at how, on this quiet morning, infection and addiction were running silently through this small, sleepy town. I was simultaneously scared for the people in this community and happy that the Governor had taken a small step to try to bring things under control.
I met with several folks who toured me around the facility, which had been quickly set up in an abandoned building in response to the crisis. I was impressed with the wraparound services available to anyone who needed services at this location: one could sign up for insurance, food stamps, get an HIV test, receive counseling and referral to outpatient treatment immediately, and, of course, exchange syringes for new needles if one was a user. There was even a mobile unit for the syringe exchange. The CDC had a presence there as well.
Everyone was helpful and pleasant, and all dedicated to the singular purpose of helping others in crisis. During my 8 hour shift, I was able to meet several clients who came in to exchange syringes. I felt fortunate to be able to travel with the mobile syringe exchange unit for a couple of hours.
The mobile unit afforded me with a real “front line” experience. Traveling to people's neighborhoods, asking if anyone knew of people who might need needles or resources, was truly informative. I got to see first hand how the people in this community were genuinely watching out for each other. I contemplated on how sometimes it takes a crisis to draw people together. My favorite moment, though, was getting to really understand how the Health Department's “One Stop Shop” had really helped people: I had the pleasure of standing next to a gentleman while he opened his mail and exclaimed, “I got insurance! This is the first time I ever had insurance!”
It was bittersweet, giving these people who are struggling with addiction needles to use, but knowing that at the very least, they will be more responsible with their use. Helping to educate them about harm reduction was one of the most interesting things I have ever participated in. Connecting with people who have drug use issues is the first step in helping them to heal from their addictions. Syringe exchange is a harm reduction technique which allows this connection to happen naturally, without guilt or shame, and helps those who are struggling with addiction to know that someone cares about what is happening to them. I feel grateful to those who allowed me to give what little time I had available to help.