Salvation: Heroes on the
Front Lines of the Drug Battlefield

Frontlines of the Opiate Epidemic

The American epidemic of opioid addiction hits millions of people hard every day, including first responders—firemen, law enforcement, emergency medical technicians and others. Daily, they use their skills to revive victims of opioid overdoses. When they can’t, they grieve. These first responders also have to deal with family and friends at the scene, and members of law enforcement have to break the news of a loss to a devastated family. Too often, they don’t even get thanked.

To make matters worse, they may even be abused physically or verbally. After receiving the opioid antidote naloxone, some people wake up combative or accuse the first responder of interrupting their drug use. But occasionally, someone breaks with this pattern and responds with heartfelt gratitude. Richard Matteoli of Fairborn, Ohio is one of these grateful individuals who was willing to go out of his way to make sure the first responders who saved his life six times knew just how grateful he was.

Richard’s Story

In July 2017, Richard told his story to a roomful of first responders who gathered at Fairborn Fire Department Station #2. As reported by WPXI News, Matteoli told the group how he started drinking while he was a student at Ohio State University. From there, his life spiraled out of control. He became addicted to heroin and was homeless. While he’s over six feet tall, his weight dropped to 121 pounds. It was during these desperate days that first responders had to bring him back from the brink of death six times.


During his briefing, he held up pictures of himself—images that look like mug shots. In those pictures, he looks just like any other desperate, addicted, homeless person.

But in July 2017, he looked healthy—and grateful. He had been sober for nearly two years. Now, he wanted to make sure that those first responders who saw him at his worst knew that sometimes, that saved life is worth the work and heartache that goes along with the job.

Steve’s Story

A man overdoses in Boynton Beach, Florida.

In Boynton Beach, Florida, a similar story played out. In March 2017, Steve Sundquist had to be revived from an opioid overdose twice in one day. Two near-death episodes in one day terrified him and he went to rehab right afterward. One hundred days later, he contacted the first responders who saved his life. He was sober, had regained the 40 pounds he lost while addicted, had a job and was grateful.

Why did he return to acknowledge his saviors? He said, “I felt like they deserve that. There are so many people that they save their lives every day and they don’t get enough credit for the job that they do.”

Preventing Burnout

It’s easy to understand why first responders could suffer burnout after treating hundreds of overdose cases, often seeing the same people day after day. But they continue the work, thanked or not, abused or not.

Receiving this kind of gratitude reveals the truth—every life is worth saving. Every person deserves a chance at recovery. When a life is saved, there’s an individual who has a chance at recovery, who can take care of his or her family again. And also, who may come back to tell first responders that the job they do is vital and deeply valued by the people they save and the families who love them.



For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.