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This Kensington outreach worker saved dozens from overdose. Then the trauma became too much. | Mike Newall

For years, Elvis Rosado has been the heart — and the muscle — of the city’s response to the opioid crisis.

Elvis Rosado, an education and outreach coordinator for Prevention Point, who has saved dozens of lives from overdose, is taking a new job away from the trauma.
Elvis Rosado, an education and outreach coordinator for Prevention Point, who has saved dozens of lives from overdose, is taking a new job away from the trauma.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The first time I met Elvis Rosado — really met him — he was furious.

We were in the basement of McPherson Square Library. It was May 2017, and librarians were using naloxone to save young people from overdosing on heroin on the library lawn. Months earlier, the staff had sought out Elvis to train them to administer the lifesaving drug. A community engagement and education coordinator at Prevention Point, the city’s only needle exchange, he had taught countless others to save lives.

Now, at the community meeting in the basement, a neighborhood hothead ranted that he had his own solution for the young people using drugs on the lawn: his 20-ounce aluminum baseball bat.

Then Elvis stood up. And Elvis roared. Elvis, a big guy with the softest heart, but a big guy all the same, who beat his own addiction almost 30 years ago, does not stand for treating people like garbage. He let it be known.

These are human beings, he said, not cattle, his voice booming. Bat wielders would have to get past him first.

There was no more talk of bats after that.

That’s how I view Elvis. As the heart — and the muscle — of the city’s response to the opioid crisis.

A running tally

As the crisis exploded in every corner of our city, but hit Kensington the hardest, Elvis kept a running tally of the people he’s personally saved from overdose. The ones outside Prevention Point, or in alleys off the avenue, or those he spotted from his car on his drive home through the neighborhood.

The tally was a way to at least mark the solemn act of saving a life, when there were just too many faces and names to remember. And as a way, too, to survive the daily trauma: All those lives saved, he’d tell himself. How could he stop?

But as the number stretched into the 60s, Elvis could no longer keep track. Stop a moment. Think about it. That’s enough people to fill the seats of an average train car. It was too much. Even for him.

So, as Billy Penn’s Michaela Winberg reported last week, Elvis is leaving his post at Prevention Point, where he has worked for over a quarter century, as an instructor of a bilingual HIV educational courses and as the point man of the organization’s naloxone outreach efforts. He has trained 3,000 people in the last 2½ years to use naloxone, including me.

He and his colleagues at Prevention Point shouldered an incredible burden: As they were teaching others how to save lives, they were still on the front lines of a crisis. And the bulk of the lifesaving duties often fell to them.

“Every time you run out and resuscitate somebody, it’s vicarious trauma,” he said. “For the 10 or 15 minutes you are working on someone, you don’t know if that person is going to make it. That takes a toll.”

And always tearing at his already frayed nerves: The fear that there would be someone they couldn’t save. The knowledge that the worst was inevitable.

Lately, he hasn’t been able to sleep. He wakes up every few hours, his mind racing. He’s taken to playing the sound of rain on his Bluetooth speakers at night.

The inevitable happens

From his perch at Prevention Point, Elvis has borne witness to the city’s response to a catastrophe. And he’s found some hope. It’s easier for people to get into treatment now. There’s more awareness of the crisis. It’s not just him and his colleagues saving people anymore: The streets are flooded with naloxone.

He’s already begun a new job as a health educator at the city’s Public Health Department. He’ll still be part of the response to the crisis, still training others to save lives. Just removed from the daily trauma.

And it was becoming daily. Even hourly, with the quiet hours at the end of the day now filled with more chaos, more overdoses.

It’s continued in the last days of his job — the rescues and the tragedies. A man overdosed at the wheel of his car on Kensington Avenue, and Elvis and a passerby were able to get there in time. Then word came that a longtime friend, Perez, a member of one of his classes, had been found dead of an overdose in a tent on Somerset. She had always been so kind, and so hopeful, Elvis remembered.

And then what he had most feared happened: He was driving down Lehigh when he saw a man collapse. He was sure there was enough time to save him. But as he worked on the man, he knew from his coloring that he was too far gone.

He did all he could, anyway. And then he cried.