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For these Philly librarians, drug tourists and overdose drills are part of the job

Since the opioid crisis began surging throughout the country last summer, the McPherson library staff has noticed new settlers on their lawn: “drug tourists.”

Librarian Chera Kowalski tends to an overdose victim outside Philadelphia's McPherson Square Library.
Librarian Chera Kowalski tends to an overdose victim outside Philadelphia's McPherson Square Library.Read moreMike Newall / Staff

I visited the century-old library that sits atop Needle Park in Kensington because I'd heard its staff was the first in the city to learn how to administer the lifesaving overdose antidote Narcan.

They have been using the spray so often that they can tell the type of overdose simply by the sound coming from the lavatory: Heroin victims slide sluggishly into unconsciousness, the librarians have found, while victims of deadly fentanyl collapse instantly, with a thud that resonates through the entire building, which is called the McPherson Square Branch.

Since the opioid crisis began surging throughout the country last summer, the library staff has noticed new settlers on their lawn: "drug tourists," they call them. Young people traveling from across the country for Philly's pure heroin and the high said to be better than anywhere else.

On Thursday morning, I found Jay and PJ in McPherson Park.

I asked to talk.

"Hold on, can I do my drugs?" Jay asked, while PJ rocked in her stupor.

I walked a short way, and then when I returned and got close, PJ looked like she was dying. She was flat on her back, blue-lipped and breathing, but just barely.

Jay had Narcan, but was hesitant to use it, he said, because it was his last dose. So he tried smacking her, gently. He rummaged through his backpack for the spray.

I dialed 911 and tried to help.

A few others — some living in the park, others there just to get high — ran over. That's when McPherson's door swung open, and a librarian came racing.

Overdose drills

For nearly 30 years, Judi Moore has worked as branch manager and children's librarian at McPherson, which serves the drug-ravaged neighborhood around Kensington and Indiana Avenues. Her desk offers a gunpoint vantage.

Until last year, she recalls just one overdose in the library. Then heroin exploded. Since then, there have been four overdoses in her building. None has been fatal.

There was the man who shot up in the adult reading room and slid to the floor. And the man who thudded to the bathroom tile and was blue and shaking and gasping for breath. There was that Saturday late last year when McPherson called 911 five times in one day.

As the library overdoses mounted, the soft-spoken Moore, whom the kids call Miss Judi, took actions, small and large.

First, she posted a bathroom monitor – and accompanying rules she hoped would pose obstacles to those who'd use the bathroom to get high:

Adults must leave a library card or ID at the front desk, the sign reads. And bathroom use is limited to three to five minutes. After that, a guard knocks.

While other libraries practice fire drills, McPherson began overdose drills:

Who stays with the victim? Who calls 911? Who ushers out the kids? Who waits for an ambulance?

The steps helped, but then the tourists swarmed.

White kids, mostly. And the addresses listed on the driver's licenses offer evidence of the opioid crisis' reach: Jersey. Delaware. Ohio. South Carolina. Alabama. Arkansas. Nevada.

With its after-school lunches and arts and STEM programming, the library has long sought to be a safe learning space. McPherson – set to celebrate its 100th anniversary Saturday -- has the highest programming-attendance rate of any city branch. And is also among the top for WiFi use. Kids come here to use computers they don't have at home.

And the park had been getting nicer in recent years, with a new playground and lighting.

But now, more than ever, children must watch their steps for needles.

Teddy Hackett, a volunteer who scours the grass daily, says he collects double the needles he did only a few years ago.

On Thursday, he collected 107, showing his bucket. He even finds them on the jungle gym.'

In March, Marion Parkinson, who supervises a half-dozen libraries, joined Moore in taking Narcan training into their own hands. "We kind of very subversively did it," Parkinson said.

Instead of waiting for permission, they asked Prevention Point Philadelphia, a needle-exchange program, to demonstrate the use of Narcan. It was held before McPherson opened, but more than two-dozen librarians showed from six North Philadelphia libraries.

Sandy Horrocks, a spokeswoman for the Free Library, said officials would expand the model to other libraries as needed. I hope they do. If there's one thing we've learned about the opioid crisis – and with Philly on pace for 1,200 overdose deaths this year, a 30 percent jump from last year – it's that help is needed everywhere.

"They had been wanting the training for a long time," Parkinson said of the McPherson librarians. "It's a very, very helpless feeling when someone is gasping for breath and you can't do anything.

"At least now they can know they tried."

To the rescue

Chera Kowalski was sitting at her desk in the adult fiction room Thursday morning when PJ overdosed.

Sterling the security guard shouted:

"Come outside and bring the Narcan!"

Since Kowalski trained, she has administered Narcan to four overdose victims. Recently, the 33-year-old South Philly resident treated a woman on a bench outside the library. When she turned around, she realized that a crowd of school kids had been watching.

That hurt.

She had asked to be assigned to a drug-stricken neighborhood when she was hired three years ago. She grew up in Delaware County in a home where both parents suffered and survived addiction. She understands the plight of the users battling their addictions and the confusion and anger of the children living through it, she says.

"I try to do as much as I can while maintaining my sanity and health," she says.

Now, she grabbed a Narcan dose and blue rubber gloves and started running.

The crowd parted as the librarian arrived.

PJ's color was starting to return. A man named Paul Cannon -- a recovering addict who had left his halfway house and came to the square with thoughts of getting high -- had administered Jay's Narcan. He had been the first to rush over. Maybe now he wouldn't get high, he said. Another woman, Kristin Allen, had massaged PJ's sternum to help her breathe. Allen said she grew up in Mayfair and had been living in the park for three weeks, since finishing a nine-month jail sentence for drugs.

"I came home to a whole new world," she said of the park. "Everyone's dying on every corner."

Jay said he didn't know much about PJ. Just that she was from the area and was "a really sweet girl."

Kowalski held PJ and shifted her onto her side, the recovery position, as she had been taught. She held the woman until the paramedics arrived and PJ finally startled awake. She refused to go to the hospital and stumbled away with Jay, the contents of her purse spilling onto the grass.

Back at her desk, Kowalski talked of the woman she had just helped – and the others who come to live in the park, what it must be like for the kids who watch them.

A young girl interrupted.

"Excuse me," she said, "can I get on a computer?"

With that, the librarian put away her Narcan.