LOGAN — Since June 1, 2019, Logan County’s Quick Response Team (QRT) has been out in the community on the forefront of the county’s drug epidemic, offering support to victims of recent drug overdoses.
Grant funded through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (WVDHHR), the QRT is described as a multifaceted team, made up of a law enforcement deputy for safety only, medical personnel in the event of an on-scene overdose or if other medical attention is needed, a pastor for spiritual guidance and a trained support specialist.
John Kangas is a peer recovery support specialist and the program manager for the Logan QRT. For him, the QRT is personal. The Lincoln and Logan County native and 20-year military veteran had a longtime battle with alcohol and drug addiction that ended June 20, 1998. After returning to the area, he says he has finally found his calling with the QRT.
Around two years ago, Kangas was unemployed and saw a job opening for a recovery coach at Prestera and decided to use his background with addiction and as a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Now, Kangas travels in the community with the rest of the QRT reaching out to victims of overdoses in the past 72 hours — described as the “recovery window” when drug users are thought to be more willing to accept help.
“My job is I’m the person that’s just like them,” Kangas said. “I’m the one that’s struggled with addiction. I’ve walked in their shoes, been where they’ve been. I can understand the pain, the misery, and the chaos, whereas the rest of the team can’t. I’m that common denominator for them.”
The Logan QRT is a collaboration among the Southwestern Regional Day Report Center, the Logan County Health Department, the Logan County Sheriff’s Department and the Logan County Emergency Ambulance Service Authority (LEASA). It began June 1, 2019, two years after the Huntington QRT model was established.
In just the past year and a half, Kangas said there have been close to 325 overdoses in the county, with the majority coming through EMS/911 system and about 25% coming through community referrals from family members or friends. Although its primary focus is on recent overdose victims, Kangas and the QRT also frequently revisit those in recovery or in need of help to provide some support they may not otherwise have.
“I’ve been cussed at, told to get the hell off their property, and normally, I just say, ‘Have a nice day, if you ever need any help, here’s my card,’ “ Kangas said, “but some of the good responses that I get — even from the people that haven’t gone into treatment — I’m the only constant that’s been in their life for the last year and a half, two years. I’m the one thing they can depend on each and every day, other than getting high. When everybody else has deserted them and left them to the wolves, here comes this guy that they met a year and a half ago knocking on their door the very next week asking them how they’re doing. Somebody actually cares for them, or cares about them, cares enough to check in on them, so a lot of times, I’ll get a, ‘Hey, thank you, man, I appreciate you stopping by ... no, I’m not quite ready to quit, but you know what? It means something that you showed up.’”
Kangas said one of the biggest issues he sees in the community aside from the drug epidemic is the amount of homegrown homelessness, which he says is underestimated by many in the county. He also notes that the county’s drug problem isn’t just confined to the more impoverished areas.
“Some people within the county themselves think that this epidemic is only located in your worst of the worst neighborhoods,” Kangas said. “What they don’t understand or don’t realize is that it’s in every neighborhood within the county.”
Another issue, he said, is the stigma attached to addicts, even among themselves.
“As a recovering alcoholic in my early sobriety, I looked down upon those that used other drugs than alcohol,” Kangas said. “I was like, I’m a higher-class addict than they are, but then I quickly realized after going to several meetings and listening to their stories when they were trying to get clean, it was the same as mine — the pain, the misery and the chaos was still the same. Just take the drug out of the picture, then boom, there’s the pain, the misery and chaos.”
Ultimately, Kangas said he thinks the biggest issue the county faces is the lack of treatment facilities, specifically 28-day treatment or detox facilities. When he’s out in the field, Kangas says there’s about a two-hour window to get them into treatment before withdrawal — commonly referred to as “dope sickness” — kicks in, and when that happens, an addict is less likely to accept treatment because they’d rather numb the feeling by getting another fix.
“We have more people that overdose, or that have a substance abuse problem, than we have beds,” Kangas said. “Another key thing is transportation, because once we find somebody a bed, most times, it’s either in Huntington, Charleston, Parkersburg, you know, the bigger towns or cities around West Virginia, and I’d say 95% of the people that I get a bed for don’t have transportation. So then it’s up to me to figure out how I’m going to get them there.”
Kangas said that two-hour window might be able to be expanded some if there were more closer facilities because it would be easier to persuade an addict to accept treatment.
Kangas handles the QRT program in Logan County, and said he has been a mentor in establishing programs in Mingo and Boone counties.
For anyone seeking help, the QRT has a “warmline” that anyone can call 24/7 at 304-207-0698. The line sends a voicemail and text directly to Kangas, which will lead him to typically call back within 24 hours.
“My job is just to plant a seed and hope to God one day it grows big enough that they want to call me or walk into the office and say, ‘Hey, John, I need some help,’ ” Kangas said. “It’s the ripple effect. If you can change one life, that one life can change another and another and another.”