In a small blue house in Northern California, a mom surrounded by three children, three cats and a dog has quietly saved the lives of hundreds of people addicted to opioids, including heroin.
On social media, Tracey Helton is known as the “heroine of heroin,” as she mails out doses of the generic version of Narcan, the drug that revives people after an overdose, to those who ask for it.
Helton knows that what she’s doing is illegal, since she’s shipping a prescription drug through the US Postal Service.
She doesn’t care.
She’s saving lives during an epidemic that kills tens of thousands of people in the United States each year.
“I feel like the law is wrong, so it’s an act of civil disobedience,” she said. “Plus, I’m sort of an old punk rocker who doesn’t like to follow the rules.”
‘Tracey saved my life’
If Helton did follow the rules, Ryan Coleman would be dead.
Coleman and Helton met in 2013 on a subreddit for opioid users. She mailed naloxone to his home in Augusta, Georgia.
Coleman put the drug in his sock drawer and told his roommate, Brian Hamilton, where it was and how to use it. Less than a year later, he collapsed on the living room floor after shooting up heroin.
Hamilton slapped him in the face, which had turned a bluish gray. Coleman didn’t react.
Remembering his friend’s instructions, Hamilton ran to the bedroom, grabbed the naloxone and injected Coleman in the hip. Within seconds, he turned pink and was conscious again.
“It scared the hell out of me, man,” Hamilton told Coleman recently as they recounted the story. “You’re like a brother to me.”
A few months later, Coleman and his friend Ryan Gillian were driving around Atlanta, looking to buy some heroin. They found some — and it was particularly potent.
Gillian passed out in the back seat of the car, and his lips turned blue. Coleman gave him a shot of naloxone, but it didn’t work, and neither did a second one. Finally, after a third dose of the drug, Gillian was revived.
All three doses came from Helton.
Today, both men say they’ve stopped using drugs.
Coleman, 36, says his life has turned around. He’s in a 12-step program, has a full-time job and hopes to train next year to become a certified addiction recovery empowerment specialist. He’s reached out to the community, recently teaching a group of Georgia correction officers about drug addiction.
“Tracey saved my life,” he said. “And I’m doing pretty awesome right now.”
On August 21, the day of the total solar eclipse, Coleman proposed to his girlfriend, Brittany Hokrein. They met on the streets and went through recovery together.
“I was in serious, active addiction for 15 years. Everyone thought I was beyond hope for a long time,” Coleman said. “I want everyone to know that if I can recover, anyone — as long as they’re still breathing — can find recovery, too.”
Coleman said he wished he could share his success with Helton in person. That happened in August, when CNN flew Helton to Georgia.
It was an emotional meeting.
Coleman told Helton how much she had given him, how October 10 will mark one year of sobriety.
“I’m assistant manager at my job, which is pretty crazy for me, because I was pretty unemployable for most of my life,” Coleman told her.
They hugged each other and cried.
“Thanks for keeping me alive long enough to get to where I am today,” he told her. “I definitely would have been dead that night. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have been dead.”
‘People all over the United States are dying unnecessarily’
Helton gets embarrassed when people tell her that she saves lives — by her count, at least 268 over the past four years.
For her, it’s just giving back.
Helton struggled with opioid addiction from ages 18 to 28 and survived several overdoses. In her book, “The Big Fix,” she chronicles her life on the streets, where she injected heroin into her feet and resorted to prostitution to support her habit.
Now 47, she’s a wife and mother of three, ages 10, 8 and 6. She has a master’s degree in public administration and works as a manager of a public health program run by the city of San Francisco.
The naloxone distribution, though, she does on her own.
“I just felt like people all over the United States are dying unnecessarily, and if I had something that I could do to try to help them, then that’s something that I wanted to try to do,” she said.
When people ask Helton for naloxone, she first tries to point them to a place where they can get it where they live, so they can receive in-person training on how to use it. If that’s not possible, she mails them the drug.
Over the past four years, she’s sent out more than 500 doses.
Two naloxone experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine say there’s a real need to get naloxone into the hands of people who need it.
The drug is available in many pharmacies, and in most states, a prescription isn’t necessary. However, the cost can be prohibitive, especially if someone doesn’t have insurance.
Injectable naloxone costs about $35 to $50 for two doses, and Narcan nasal spray costs $120 to $150 for two doses, according to Hopkins researchers Suzanne Nesbit and Juliana Zschoche.
Even though a prescription isn’t usually required, you have to ask a pharmacist for naloxone. Many people suffering from addiction fear that they’ll be stigmatized or even arrested if an authority figure finds out about their illness.
“That’s a very common concern that I hear from patients,” said Nesbit, a clinical pharmacy specialist in pain management at Hopkins. “They want to seek other ways to get it so they’re not known as a substance abuser.”
Helton is one of those other ways.
“It may be easier to do this from behind a screen, and they may feel more comfortable getting it from someone who they can relate to as she experienced the problem herself,” added Zschoche, a clinical pharmacy specialist in emergency medicine at Hopkins.
‘Everyone is worth saving’
Although Helton’s glad to be saving lives, she’s angry that more isn’t being done to deliver naloxone on a larger scale.
“I run such a small program. I’m just one person trying to make a difference,” she said. “This is a program that should be fully funded, instead of me having to scrape together donations and keeping stuff underneath my bed.”
Helton won’t say who gives her the naloxone doses she keeps under her bed. The US Postal Service doesn’t allow lay people to ship prescription drugs, according to Scott Burris, a professor of law and public health at Temple University.
But Helton doesn’t care, because she’s saving lives.
She remembers her days of addiction, when some people told her that she should just die, that the world would be better off without her.
“I really want to show that drug users are human beings, and they need to be safe,” she said. “Everyone is worth saving.”