HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – When it comes to opiate abuse, Broward County ranks among the highest areas in the state for overdoses, something first responders in Hollywood are all too familiar with.
"It started years ago for these people when we had all the pill mills down here. They got caught up in this mess and now we have to find a way to address it," said Hollywood Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Jose Morales.
Those who are "brought back" from near death by the overdose-reversing drug called naloxone wind up in hospital emergency rooms.
"There are days when we have multiple overdose patients arriving in our emergency department," said Dr. Randy Katz, Director of Memorial Regional Hospital's ER in Hollywood. "Traditionally, these patients were the people that nobody wanted to deal with, there was nothing we could offer them."
That changed in June 2017 when Katz helped launch a pilot program called Medical Assisted Treatment or MAT.
"The emergency department is a very important place when these people are really at a very vulnerable time to receive treatment," Katz said.
Patients who enroll in the MAT program get medication to help with withdrawal symptoms, mental health counseling, peer guidance and social support.
"Some of the patients who come to us don't even have a place to live so we help them with programs that can get them housing so they can work their way up to permanent housing eventually," said Memorial Toxicologist Alberto Augusten.
After decades of drug and alcohol abuse, a near-fatal overdose brought Christy McDaniel to Memorial Regional's ER in the fall of 2017.
"I knew they had help there. I didn't know it was going to be as much help as it was," McDaniel said.
She credits the program with giving her hope.
"It's not just about getting sober and getting therapy, it's about getting my life back together as a functional human being, as a part of society," she said.
Since its inception, more than 100 people have been treated through the MAT program and stayed with it long term.
First responders like Hollywood Fire Lt. Mike Saffran see that as an encouraging sign.
"Maybe one of these days there won't be as many calls, but until that day comes, it's a part of the job right now," Saffran said.
Plans are underway to expand the MAT program in South Florida and it's becoming a model for similar efforts around the state.