‘We are so concerned about the spike’: Sauk County program pairs recovery coaches, EMS to step in after drug overdoses

WisHope launched in Sauk County this spring

MADISON, Wis. – Addiction is a lonely road already. COVID-19 only drove friends and family farther away.

“The pandemic really was isolating for a lot of people,” said Sara Jesse, a community health strategist with the Sauk County Public Health Department.

The number of drug overdose deaths in the county rose from 13 in 2019 to 21 in 2020.

Sauk Co Numbers

Source: Sauk County Health Department

“We are so concerned about the spike of overdoses in our community during the pandemic,” Jesse said, adding that the numbers represent both accidental and purposeful overdoses. “I can tell you, Sauk County typically sees about 14 overdose deaths per year, which is already astronomically high given our population.”

“Isolation, loneliness, not being able to work and meet their needs, those are huge triggering factors for people to relapse and use,” said Ryan Ramnarace, a peer recovery coach.

A new opportunity to save lives

Baraboo Paramedic Niko Oehlenschlager never gets used to helping people through an overdose — certainly not when they don’t make it through.

“Patients’ families stick out the most,” Oehlenschlager said. “It’s a profound feeling of helplessness. It’s palpable.”

Usually, his work doesn’t go beyond the incident itself.

“Typically in my work, we don’t see the other end after we make contact with the patient,” Oehlenschlager said.

“It’s really frustrating because we don’t know the people being treated by EMS and being released out there into the night,” Ramnarace said.

As a peer recovery coach, Ramnarace leads people through the often-overwhelming recovery landscape, in part by connecting his own past experience.

“To be real honest, at one time, I used to be part of the problem in Sauk County,” he said, adding that he spent 14 years in prison for drug conspiracy. “It drove me, made me want to be part of the solution.”

Now part of that solution is WisHope, which pairs up coaches like Ramnarace with EMS responders like Oehlenschlager. The two have gone back to patients Oehlenschlager helped save in the days after an overdose. Referrals after such incidents can provide a unique opportunity for the team to reach people who need help.

“We haven’t really been offered an opportunity like this before,” Oehlenschlager said. “We can provide some sort of safety net.”

WisHope, which partners with agencies throughout the state, is led by Peter Brunzelle.

“It’s both heartbreaking and a blessing,” Brunzelle said. “It’s too often we lose people, especially now.”

COVID-19 has stopped people from connecting, interrupting in-person groups and therapy. He wants to strengthen that connection again.

“The more we can shift culture toward helping and reaching out instead of looking away, the more people are going to get connected,” Brunzelle said.

As part of the program, they have set up a hotline (844-WIS-HOPE) and a website found here with a map of available resources that helps cut through the many fake options Brunzelle said show up during a Google search.

Part of a recovery coach’s job is to bring lived experience with substance abuse, along with connecting people with resources.

“Part of my job is being a resource broker,” Ramnarace said. “I try to help and show people there is a life after use.”

While he can offer options, he can’t make people go down that road. But he can walk with them every step of the way.

“The heart of peer support is walking with them on their journey,” Ramnarace said.

“Drug users are not criminals. They’re you and I walking around on our streets, people we would never suspect are struggling,” Jesse said. “It has been criminalized, but what they really need is treatment support. (Drug us is) a medical condition once they are addicted.”