‘She woke up and attacked us!’

Jim McBride, community addiction manager,
and Paul McGivney, nurse team leader.
Field: Addiction services.
Location: Glasgow
Client: Martin Gallacher is a 36-year-old man who
uses drugs and was known to the city’s addiction services through
his attendance at a methadone clinic. 
CASE HISTORY: A woman not known to addiction
services was seemingly in Gallacher’s company. Staff had seen her
in the street and come into the building with Gallacher. She was
heavily under the influence of drugs – and had certainly taken more
than one substance. It became apparent that she had overdosed and
as she approached the door to the reception she collapsed in the
foyer. Immediately, an ambulance was  called and McBride and 
McGivney were notified. 
Dilemma: The woman was unknown to staff and so
they were not sure how to react beyond the immediate need to try
and resuscitate her, and the one person who might have information
– Gallacher -proved unwilling to provide it.
Risk factor: The reception area was busy and
people, including children, were distressed at the sight of a
possible fatality. Gallacher was volatile and angry, and should the
woman be resuscitated nobody knew how she might react.
Outcome: The woman was resuscitated but assaulted
ambulance staff and ran away. Addiction services were keen to learn
from the experience, and staff are now aware and trained for any
future similar circumstances. 

Reflecting on what you are doing or have done has long been a
staple of professional social and health care practice. When it
comes to learning, development and improvement the word
“continuous” is almost synonymous.

Over the past year, social work and health services in Glasgow have
taken the various strands of and approaches to drugs and alcohol
work and bound them into an integrated addiction service. And
despite detailed planning, sometimes experience can be the only
teacher. But with lessons learned, the organisation can only become

This was the case following the collapse of a woman who had
overdosed outside the reception of the city’s east end area
community addiction team (CAT) office. She was unknown to the
service but was seemingly in the company of service user Martin
Gallacher. Staff called for an ambulance and notified senior
management. Nurse team leader Paul McGivney helped with the
resuscitation of the woman because staff were struggling to get a
heartbeat from her.

The reception area was busy with many children about. “We also
sought to minimise the distress to them and moved everyone away
from the area,” says community addiction manager Jim McBride.
“Fortunately we have a treatment room and we were able to use a
face mask to help with resuscitation. While Paul took control of
that, I concentrated on trying to calm Gallacher down.”

He initially denied knowing the woman. McBride challenged Gallacher
again: “He admitted that he knew her but had only met her two days
ago, and then admitted that he was seeing her. I then asked what
drugs had she taken. At first he said it was an epileptic seizure.
He then said she might have taken a few drugs, but then admitted
that she had taken cocaine, heroin and about 30 Valium.”

Although distressed at the circumstances, Gallacher’s attention
seemed more diverted by the woman’s bag than her well-being. Says
McBride: “We argued that wasn’t his property, assuming that she
might have drugs on her. There weren’t any in the bag, but there
were three mobiles and a set of underwear, which suggested that she
may be a prostitute and that Gallacher might be pimping her or at
least feeding his drug habit.”

Meanwhile, McGivney was still tending to the woman: “She had a
pulse by the time the ambulance crew arrived. But they were unable
to resuscitate her and didn’t have any Narcan – an injected
medicine that blocks the effects of opiates resulting in severe
withdrawal symptoms. A paramedic car turned up but again no
Narcan,” he says.

A second ambulance was called. “This crew administered Narcan and,
lo and behold, instant withdrawal and the woman wide awake. She
immediately assaulted the crew and ran out of the ambulance and off
up the road,” says McBride.

This raised questions for the CAT about how to respond to potential
fatal overdose incidents. “Our concern was that she had left the
scene, had no desire to engage with us, and most worryingly, we
suspected the first thing she’d do is try to buy more drugs. We
have to see this in context of the wider drugs-death issues we face
in Glasgow,” says McBride.

The integrated addiction service has a critical incident report
procedure, part of which crucially looks at lessons to be learned.
Training has since been provided on overdose prevention and
managing risks involved in engaging with people, particularly if
they are not known. “We were also aware of the usefulness of our
treatment rooms. We are now considering storing Narcan and training
all health staff to administer this,” says McGivney.

The service is looking to also train all staff in other health care
issues so they don’t automatically look to health care staff when
it comes to medicine, assessing injuries or dressing wounds.
McBride adds: “There’s a culture perception: they’re nurses so they
must know what they’re doing. But they’re not general nurses
working on wards day in, day out. It’s about educating staff in the
team that nurses are not necessarily better placed to administer
first aid.” McGivney agrees: “From the nursing point of view,
having nurses there doesn’t really help because we always say that
nurses are not the best first aiders!”

The incident has, according to McBride, had a positive impact on
the service. “It reminded folk not to be complacent – and you can,
at times, become desensitised about who comes through the door and
what they present you with. We go onto automatic pilot: it’s the
same circumstances, different names. But the incident made us
realise we have to analyse continuously what works here and what
doesn’t,” he says.

Arguments for risk

  • There was a need for staff to act – an ambulance was called but
    the woman’s heart was struggling. The treatment room provided a
    safe place and equipment to help stabilise her until the ambulance
    turned up.
  • With McGivney taking control of the woman’s resuscitation,
    McBride sought to move people away from the area and then
    concentrate on calming Gallacher: “He was volatile, agitated, angry
    and upset, and he was inflaming the situation so I took him away,”
    says McBride. 
  • The team learned from the experience. It was reported to the
    critical incident panel that meets through the integrated
    management team which reviews practice. “We looked at it as a wider
    training issue across the city. It’s about making sure that if such
    an incident happens again, staff feel comfortable and confident to
    take it on without the worry or uncertainty,” says McBride.  

Arguments against risk 

  • While recognising that working with people who misuse alcohol
    and drugs can bring an inherent risk to staff safety, staff have to
    be extra vigilant when coming across people unknown to the service.
    They are also putting themselves at risk if they try to medically
    help someone without the critical information – to assist such help
    – being available. The ambulance was called – that should have been
    the extent of the involvement.  
  •  The result of getting involved with the woman (and failing to
    get Gallacher to provide the information required – he couldn’t
    even be sure of her name) was that she assaulted ambulance crew –
    because they had the Narcon that resuscitated her. If staff had
    access to the medicine, which the service is now considering,  it
    may well be them who were assaulted.  
  • The concern with this woman, apart from not knowing who she is,
    is where is she now? Pressure was brought to bear on Gallacher but
    he refused to give more information.

Independent Comment 
This case is an example of a scenario that occurs
everyday in some part of the country. There are several factors
here but all are secondary to the life and death of the unknown
woman. Staff rightly concentrated on this crucial point with the
addiction services senior management taking control of situation,
writes Andrew Horne.  

Calling the ambulance and beginning resuscitation were essential
first steps. It is disappointing to discover that neither the first
ambulance nor the medical car were in possession of Narcan, when
you take into account the number of overdoses and drug fatalities
in the Glasgow area.

It has long been argued that drug and homeless services should hold
Narcan and that all staff should be trained to administer it. We
may get a punch in the mouth for our troubles but we have saved a

When I have been involved in a similar situation and the service
user has run off, I immediately contact all local A&E
departments, the police and key services to give a description of
the service user. In this case speed is vital because Narcan will
put him or her into immediate withdrawal, increasing the likelihood
of her trying to use again, thus increasing the chances of a second

This particular case was well managed but would it have been if the
two senior staff were not present in the building?

Andrew Horne is operations manager, Addaction Scotland.
Addaction is a leading UK charity working solely in the field of
drug and alcohol treatment

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