As he had done plenty of times before, Fire Capt. David Washington led first responders in saving a young man from a near-fatal drug overdose three weeks ago.
He knows that some overdose victims are not so lucky. But a special bond formed between Washington and Modesto native Zach Oehrke, who was revived on a restroom floor at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Washington has taken the unusual step of getting involved with the young man’s recovery from addiction, despite the 827-mile distance between Seattle and Modesto.
The fire captain flew to California this week and spent two days with Oehrke, 23, at the New Hope Recovery program in Modesto. Washington took part in group sessions and listened to the stories of other addicts, but mostly took the opportunity to mentor Zach.
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“You need to have the after care to get these people to the next level in their life,” said Washington, who works for the Port of Seattle Fire Department.
He is clearly bothered by the numbers of the nation’s opioid epidemic, including the estimated 57,000 overdose deaths a year. “It is going to rise 9 percent,” he said.
After the lifesaving response three weeks ago, Washington said his chief called him into an office and showed him pictures of Zach, including one as a child with his mom.
“I started bawling,” Washington said. “I thought he could be my son. My chief asked me if I wanted to support him.”
The fire service veteran has committed to be a mentor, friend and father figure to Zach, even after returning to his job in Washington.
“It is extremely humbling to see that,” Zach said. “They are not just doing their job. They are making that extra effort.”
Oehrke said his life so far is a good example of how anyone can fall into opioid addiction. He was raised in a religious family and attended a private Christian school from the early grades through high school.
As a teenager, Zach got into drugs, starting with weed at 15. He said he discovered liking the feeling of pain pills and then got hooked on them after back-to-back shoulder surgeries when he served in the Army.
Before long, Zach learned that heroin was cheaper and stronger. He has been in five recovery programs.
The Modesto native has lived in Oregon and Washington, and was homeless in Seattle before the overdose earlier this month. “I got to the point where I believed I would die as a heroin addict,” Zach said.
Zach said his family had cut ties with him, but a recent period in jail had made him clean for a couple of months.
He was going to fly to Las Vegas to see his girlfriend and ducked into the airport restroom to shoot up. He thought the amount of heroin in the syringe was too much because of his body’s lower tolerance level, but he proceeded with the injection and blacked out.
Emergency responders found him on the floor with a needle in his arm. In trying to save an overdose victim, paramedics hope the person’s oxygen exchange level is not too far below the normal 95 to 100 percent. Zach’s reading was 16 percent, Washington said.
Essentially, he was not breathing and was suffocating from the rising carbon dioxide in his blood, the captain said. A dose of Narcan was administered in the nose to revive Zach. He was off the floor and talking in 15 minutes.
Washington, who is African American, has committed to help Zach break his addiction. The captain mentioned the difference in nationality during an interview Wednesday, but it seemed not to matter as they interacted.
“It is commendable what he is doing and speaks to having a servant’s heart,” said Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst, who met the captain at New Hope Recovery. “One of the rewarding things about our profession is we get to help individuals in emergencies. We put them in the ambulance and they’re taken to the hospital. But we don’t see the end result.”
Zach said addiction is a dark place, where he isolates himself and wants to be alone. “You are burning bridges,” he said.
His plan for staying clean after leaving the New Hope program is to attend groups, talk with his sponsor and stay in touch with his friend in Seattle. He also has reconnected with his family in Modesto.
Zach said he drew support from watching the captain this week and feeding off his energy and positivity. “You can’t even begin to explain that bond you form with someone who saved your life,” Zach said. “It has been really heart-warming for me to see the investment he wants to put into my life and into other people’s lives.”
Washington said his followup work with Zach is a first for the Port of Seattle department. It may be a bright light in the nation’s opioid epidemic. He said he believes his new friend can be a voice for thousands of people —that there is hope for those trapped in addiction.
He also knows that recovery is hard work and no one should try it alone.
“You just have to pick up the phone and call and we’ll talk about it,” he told Zach on Wednesday.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16