Chera Kowalski remembers working at McPherson Square Library when overdoses became a more common occurrence in Kensington. It was 2015, and Philadelphia saw 696 overdose deaths that year — a 52% increase from just two years before — eighty percent of which involved opioids. There were more than twice as many overdose deaths than homicides.
At the time, library staff didn’t have naloxone — an opioid overdose reversal medication — or the training to administer it. The best staff members could do was call emergency services — which were experiencing longer response times from the increase in overdoses — and wait.
“It was extremely upsetting,” said Kowalski, the former adult/teen librarian at McPherson. “You’re standing there, you’re watching someone die, and there’s limited things that you can do to help the situation.”
So in 2016, Kowalski approached the Free Library of Philadelphia administration about providing naloxone and opioid overdose reversal training to library staff at McPherson.
By 2017, McPherson’s staff was fully trained on how to administer the medication by Prevention Point Philadelphia. That same year, Philadelphia saw the most overdose deaths to date — 1,217. Kowalski reversed six overdoses that year.
“The first time I was kind of in shock afterward,” Kowalski said of her first overdose reversal. “After that, I just went about my business. Each time I did a reversal, within ten minutes I was back sitting at my desk or participating in whatever type of work that needed to be done.”
Kowalski has since been promoted and now works as the assistant to the chief of staff for the Free Library out of the Parkway Central Library branch. Since leaving, she’s had time to reflect on the impact that witnessing trauma in the neighborhood had on her — especially trauma related to overdoses, which she feels are normalized.
“I thought I was doing well, but I wasn’t,” she said. “After things calmed down, I realized I needed to take better care of myself, and I also had time then to focus on not just personal stuff, but what I wanted to do with my public service.”
To read the full article by Henry Savage, click here.