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'This is different': Police officer, counselor talk of dire fight against opiates

Lt. Shannon Ruziska heads the narcotics, intelligence and street crimes units for the Fargo Police Department. David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
Tonya Sorenson is the Chemical Dependency Director at Prairie St. John's in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the Fargo-Moorhead area, overdoses and drug deaths have become too common. As the death toll rises, stigma and misconception fuel the fire. In this three-part series, we explore the faces of addiction behind the headlines. A recovering addict, a mother of addicts and two authorities who work with addicts tell their stories.

Sunday: An addict describes her road to recovery

Monday: A family's seven years of "epic terror"

Tuesday: Through the eyes of a counselor and a cop

FARGO — This is different.

That's the message Lt. Shannon Ruziska wants to get across. The area hasn't seen anything like this in his 24 years with the Fargo Police Department. As the head of the narcotics, intelligence and street crimes units, Ruziska says the battle with opiates has taken lives, and — if continued — will touch every life in some way.

Fighting that battle means more than enforcing the law and going after sales.

"It's always good to arrest somebody and (be able to) say I took a bad guy off the street," Ruziska says, but that's the part everyone knows officers already do. Eradicating the problem requires more.

The police department has implemented community awareness and education. By participating in symposiums, holding talks and hosting events like "Arms Wide Open" and "Eyes Wide Open," law enforcement communicates their support, Ruziska said.

In the coming year, Ruziska also hopes to be a friendly face in recovery and treatment centers to answer questions. He wants to make recovering addicts aware of immunity laws — that if they call 911 for a medical emergency, drugs found on the scene may be confiscated but those present won't be charged for for them for the most part, unless they had sold the drugs to the victim.

"If it takes a minute to hide your drugs, that's a minute this person might be dying, or a minute longer where their brain isn't getting enough oxygen and they have permanent damage," he says. "I don't want (people) to hesitate. I'd rather save a life — and have them enjoy the immunity the law gives them — than have them try to hide things and this person possibly suffered because of that."

A difficult job

Too many people have suffered. Since Ruziska took his position in January 2016, there were seven confirmed drug overdose deaths just in Fargo through October. The Fargo Police Department has also responded to 43 overdoses during that time that didn't result in the user's death.

It's not just a Fargo problem. As of August, F-M Ambulance was on track to use anti-opiate antidotes on about 90 calls across the metro area in 2016.

"There's nothing harder in this job than to go to a family of an overdose victim when their child is dead," he says. "Every one of my detectives has been to an overdose death — many of them several times over. You can see it on their faces when they go there — it's hard."

Tonya Sorenson, director of chemical dependency at Prairie St. John's, experiences similar feelings. On paper, her job is to be a resource for patients to find a program that fits, whether that means detox, a residential program or an outpatient program.

But the job also tugs at her heartstrings. "It's like tough love but then turn around and give them a hug if that's what they need," Sorenson says. "It's almost kind of a parenting role at times. 'Hey, we love you, but ... we're not going to let you die, either.' "

Despite her team's efforts, some days bear bad news. "Sometimes we're reading about these folks in the paper — the obituaries," Sorenson says. "That's the hard part of our job: to see that addiction does take lives. It's like, this person struggled for years but now we're not going to see them walk through the door to keep trying."

The job is undeniably stressful. Counselors help fight multiple addictions at once which is draining work, but the reward is great. In sharing such a vulnerable process, counselors and patients become invested.

"Everybody has a story and that's what I find fascinating about my job. You're always going to meet somebody who impacts you in a different way," Sorenson says. "The stories are just so real and so raw."

In some instances, Sorenson's drive comes from watching patients come back and try again when they've failed. "I think it takes a lot of courage to walk through the doors and say, 'OK, it didn't work this time but I'm back and let's keep working towards this,' " she says.

Other times, reinforcement comes years later when she runs into a patient at the mall and sees their progress or hears their success story. "I think the rewards are just knowing people can change," she says.

Banding together

Fighting addiction is a community effort. Drugs don't discriminate. "It's not a poor person's thing. It's not a rich person's thing. It's not white, black. It's not Christian, non-Christian," Ruziska says. "Every single group can have this problem."

Often, there's a stigma toward the types of people that uses substances, Sorenson says. People think "it looks like somebody who might be living under a bridge or a homeless person walking down the street, when in actuality it could be that person you're sitting next to in church on Sunday, or a professional you're working with. Addiction isn't selective. Everybody is affected," she says.

That's why Ruziska says the average citizen can no longer turn a blind eye. "Our crime statistics show it's part of your problem," he says. "They're stealing to support; they can steal from you. Your family is going to have an addiction problem if you let this last long enough. It's going to come home."

At the end of the day, the answer lies in the power of togetherness. "I cannot arrest enough people to stop this. We cannot treat enough people to stop this. We cannot have the faith organizations talk to enough people to stop this," Ruziska says. "If we all get together, maybe we can stop it."

For Sorenson, it's bittersweet knowing it has taken lives lost to bring the community together.

"With all the opiate forums, it's so cool to see all that's happening," she says. "Law enforcement and clergy are having meetings together now — people that you never thought would connect are connecting."

Though their jobs comes with challenges, Ruziska and Sorenson know they must remain optimistic. Because that's what something as powerful as opiates requires: a blend of community resources, support and hope.

"You have to be hopeful, or what's the point?" Sorenson asks. "There's no purpose to what we do if we don't have hope."

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