CHICAGO — There’s a tree in Oak Park that Sheila Haennicke planted in memory of her son, who died of an overdose on the Blue Line two years ago.
On weekends, the mother hugs her late son’s tree, which she says has sprouted to be as tall as he was.
“I don’t care who’s watching,” she said. “My son did not want to die.”
In her wallet is a prayer card for David Haennicke, who once studied to be paramedic, aspiring to help others escape the throes of addiction if he ever could himself.
He tried rehab over a dozen times. Now strapped to his mother’s backpack is a pouch of Narcan, an overdose-reversing medication that could have saved her son’s life, had it been administered faster on that fatal day on the Blue Line, she said.
Last week, Haennicke took the train to 95th Street Red Line station to give her son the closest thing to one more hug.
She wrapped her arms around the CTA’s first “Public Health Vending Machine,” stocked with free Narcan, drug testing strips and hygiene products aimed to reduce the harm that can often unravel those struggling with opioid addiction.
The CTA’s Narcan vending machine is one of five turned on by Chicago Department of Public Health over the past two weeks, in a new pilot program bringing life-saving supplies to public spaces in high overdose areas.
Uptown Library, Garfield Community Service Center, Harold Washington Library, Roseland Community Triage Center and the 95th Red Line station are recipients of the vending machines, which ask users to a create a unique PIN by first completing an anonymous online survey, although just Narcan can be dispensed by dialing “1234.”
The machines, which cost $12,000 each, had their summer launch dates delayed due to manufacturing and shipping hiccups, health department spokesperson Anna Dolezal said.
In the years following her son’s death, Haennicke joined other harm reduction advocates in lobbying city officials for greater availability of Narcan, a last line of defense in an opioid overdose crisis that killed a record 2,000 people in Cook County last year.
Health officials say the record overdoses are largely fueled by the rise of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that now laces many drugs and has done its gravest damage on the city’s West Side. Last year the city added Narcan boxes to its 81 public libraries and trained over 300 librarians to administer it, hoping reactive measures could only begin to stem the deadly tide that had already broken loose across the country.
David Haennicke is one of over 120 people who have died of overdoses on the CTA since 2020. Last year overdose deaths on the transit system almost doubled to 60, according to city data analyzed by Katie Prout of the Chicago Reader.
Sheila Haennicke said overdose deaths in public spaces are preventable, especially around other transit riders and workers capable of using Narcan, which can be given as a nasal spray, and is not harmful if administered incorrectly. A vending machine for Narcan at one Red Line station isn’t a solution — but it’s a start, she said.
“We now have a precedent,” Haennicke said. “There can be lot of shame in struggling with substance use. But this machine is an affirmation to people that they will be okay, that we want to take care of you, that we see you and that you matter, too. That is the first step to recovery. We need life-giving signs throughout our city.
“I think David would have been proud of me for that.”
Ahead of the two-year anniversary of her son’s death, Haennicke plans to address CTA executives at their board meeting Wednesday, requesting Narcan be placed on platforms and trains, similiar to how it was swiftly implemented across city libraries.
“We want to empower riders to help one another,” said Haennicke, adding that local harm reduction groups she has worked with, like the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, would be willing to help the CTA stock and maintain Narcan.
Erik McIntosh, a nurse practitioner with Rush University Medical Center, wrote an op-ed in the Sun-Times last year urging CTA to make Narcan more accessible, after witnessing an overdose on the Blue Line. McIntosh said he treats clients every week who have overdosed on or near public transit, “hot spots” that lower-income and unhoused populations — who are disproportionally affected by the opioid crisis — are more likely to rely upon.
He would like to see CTA employees trained to carry and administer Narcan as well.
“Having it widely available shows CTA is taking part of the responsibility to watch out for their neighbors and riders, that they’re willing to provide the tools that could save their lives. It’s a call for the collective responsibility, which is needed to address this epidemic,” McIntosh said. “They don’t have to do it, and it’s the not easiest thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”
A security guard who asked not to be named because it could impact her job said she’d carry Narcan if CTA or her company supplied and trained her for it. She said she’s routinely witnessed overdoses on transit, particularly on West Side train lines, and it often takes 10 or more minutes for paramedics to respond.
“We call for help, try to use our best judgment and do what we can, but there’s only so much we can do right now,” the guard said. “People need to be trained. We could be saving lives. Evidently, it’s needed.”
Denise W. Barreto, CTA’s first chief equity and engagement officer, said the new Narcan vending machine is a “first method” for the agency to learn how to effectively expand harm reduction tools.
But putting Narcan on trains or platforms, or in the hands of its workers, is “not a focus,” Barreto said, citing possible negotiations with labor unions, troubles staying atop of stock and a “host of legal considerations.”
“Our employees, their primary job is the safe operation of our transit system. With that said, there’s not a consideration to have our people take this on as something part of their duties,” Barreto said. “What we can be is a great partner to folks who specialize in this. That’s our responsibility. … We understand CTA is at the crossroads of public health issues.”
Tom McKone, chief administrative officer at the CTA, said the agency has tapped The Night Ministry, a local outreach group, to provide social services and harm reduction tools, including Narcan, to riders once a week at an end of both the Blue Line and Red Line. A $2 million partnership with the city’s Department of Family and Support Services is funding a team of two nonprofit workers, sometimes four — carrying Narcan and assisting people looking for shelter — on the Blue Line seven days a week, including overnights, McKone said.
Transit cops also carry Narcan, police spokesperson Tom Ahern said. Ahern would not say how many transit cops operate on the system each day — but there were 136 officers deployed to the CPD’s Public Transportation Section last month, according to the city inspector general.
Narcan is not available on New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its employees do not carry it, a spokesperson said. Police assigned to San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit have been carrying Narcan since 2019, but “we do not have vending machines with Narcan nor have I heard any suggestions to add them,” a spokesperson said.
Los Angeles’ Metro has more than 325 “ambassadors” trained to carry Narcan and “save lives on our system,” a spokesperson said. Metro’s transit security officers also carry Narcan, and law enforcement on the system may carry it as well, the spokesperson said.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, two bus drivers were credited with saving a man who overdosed in a transit terminal, giving him a dose of Narcan that was kept on premises.
Sarah Richardson, a program manager focused in substance use with Chicago’s health department, said the city is using the vending machine’s surveys to study the effectiveness of the Narcan access and better understand where it’s needed most.
The city library’s rapid rollout of Narcan, over 13,000 doses so far, is unique given the library’s central distribution system, Richardson said. Having Narcan on platforms and trains may also pose logistical issues with storing them at an ideal room temperature, Richardson said.
“But now that we know this works at libraries, we’re having these conversations,” Richardson said. “We can absolutely always do more, and thinking about Narcan on transit, this is just the first step.”
The first Narcan box at the 95th Street Red Line station was dispensed around 5 a.m., Richardson said.
“This is an essential city service now,” Richardson said.
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