Exchange of Faith

Baltimore needle van hands out clean syringes, safety advice, encouragement and an occasional shot at redemption

June 12, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Michele Brown lays three syringes on the table in front of a pretty, 27-year-old blond woman with a tattoo of Tigger on her upper right arm. One after another, Brown uncaps each of the syringes to show the younger woman the needle.

"This one has a long needle with a fine point," Brown says. "This one has a long needle but a thicker point. It's the sturdiest.

"And this one," she says of the last syringe, "this one has a short needle and a fine point. That's the one most people like."

The young woman elects to go with the popular choice, and Brown drops a dozen or more into a brown paper lunch bag. Next she dangles a tourniquet in front of the woman. "We recommend you use these rather than shoelaces or something like that. They're easier to get off and you can do it with one hand."

She shows the woman a "cooker" and cotton, and explains their uses. Then she pulls out two plastic bottles, one containing purified water and the other bleach. These are useful in killing some blood-borne germs but, she emphasizes, not HIV.

All of these items go into the paper bag along with a handful of condoms. "Have a good day, Hon," Brown says as she hands over the bag. "And protect yourself."

The companionable atmosphere in the Baltimore Needle Exchange van is like that of a neighborhood hardware store, brimming with solicitude and good will. Rather than delineating the attributes of drug paraphernalia, Brown might be suggesting woodmaking techniques to a customer. "Yes, sir. I recommend the brass wood screws. They don't rust."

Brown, a career drug counselor who helped start the Baltimore Health Department's needle exchange nearly six years ago, won't countenance any worker who isn't assiduously respectful of those who come through the door for clean needles. Here they are rarely referred to as "addicts" and never, ever as "criminals." They are simply "our clients."

The van represents one of the tragic paradoxes of contemporary American life. From this place are dispensed the instruments that at once save lives while also helping to destroy them. Brown doesn't waste much time on the ironies of her work.

She is 46 years old, has shoulder-length hair and bangs and favors duck pants and pastel-colored T-shirts and sneakers. She is ebullient but not the least bit naive. "I knew people who were dying from the virus. Most of them would tell me they got it from sharing needles. All the time, you'd hear someone say, `How's so-and-so?' `Well, he died.' `How about so-and-so?' `She died, too.' It seemed to me there was such a simple solution."

This afternoon, the van, a clumsy old Ford Gulfstream, is parked at the desolate corner of Monroe and Ramsey. Brown and her band call this spot "The Wild, Wild Southwest" owing to its location in Baltimore and its reputation as the busiest site visited by the city's two needle exchange vans.

True to form, when the van pulls up 15 minutes ahead of schedule, a line immediately forms outside its curbside door. Or maybe it is not so much a line as a grouping of souls. Some of them pace. Some smoke cigarettes or strike up half-hearted conversations. Still others stand motionless, as though afraid an extraneous movement will drain them of the last traces of fortitude.

Brown relents a few minutes before 1. "Let's get started," she says. John Harris, a handsome, 43-year-old health aide, pushes open the door. "OK," he calls to the crowd, now numbering more than a half-dozen, "first two, come on in."

The Baltimore Needle Exchange is open for business.

For the next two hours, there is plenty of business, enough to occupy Brown and three other workers. The regular clients know the routine. They sit across from Harris and lay their used syringes on the table. The veterans know to put elastic bands around groups of five. They also know to separate "program needles," which will be exchanged one for one, from the non-program needles, sometimes gathered from the ground, which fetch half as many. "We are an exchange, not a distribution," Brown explains several times during the afternoon.

Harris is careful not to touch the needles himself. He uses a tongue depressor to make his counts. When done, he asks the client to throw the old needles into one of the hazardous waste trash cans. Then Harris fills the paper bag with the new needles and whatever other supplies the client needs. The whole process can take less than 30 seconds.

Often it takes longer because of pleasantries. Brown recognizes many of the clients. "Hey, where you been? I haven't seen you in a while," she says to one young man with liquid eyes in a sweatshirt and shorts.

"I been in the penitentiary," he says evenly.

"How long you been home?"

"About a month."

She hands him his bag, and he smiles self-consciously at her as he rises to leave. "OK, Hon, good seeing you again," she says.

A few treatment slots

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