This doctor knew he could save lives. But would his conservative legislature let him?
When Dr. Hansel Tookes stood before his conservative Florida legislature, he knew he had an uphill battle ahead of him.
But there were too many lives at stake not to try.
His voice was clear and unwavering when he asked the legislature to consider a bill that would allow him to provide drug users with clean needles.
At that time in Florida, it was illegal to do so — and as a result, Miami led the nation in new HIV and hepatitis C infections.
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Tookes knew the use of dirty needles was a pervasive problem. Some drug users were picking them up directly off the ground, desperate for relief but unable to access clean needles to prevent further harm to themselves.
This accelerated the spread of disease in the community.
“The simple epiphany that Florida needed syringe exchange came when I was a third-year medical student,” he explains.
Clean needles can make all the difference: In fact, Tookes says, the evidence behind needle exchanges as a prevention tool is strong — as strong as the evidence that smoking cessation prevents cancer.
“We have this tool that we were withholding from this vulnerable population,” he says. But harm reduction isn’t always the first line of defense when it comes to public health, especially for those who believe in a more punitive approach to substance abuse.
Tookes knew that the idea of providing drug users with needles would be a tough sell, but he was determined.
When he reached out to Tim Stapleton, head of the Florida Medical Association, Stapleton was skeptical at first. “I thought that [he would] become discouraged,” he shares. “[But] he wasn’t going to let anything stop him.”
Thus began Tookes’ journey as an advocate and his seven-and-a-half hour drives to Tallahassee, working the capital and building momentum to change the law — and change the lives of drug users in Florida.
It took several years of advocacy work, but astonishingly, the bill did pass, with an overwhelming majority of the legislature backing him.
“Every time he hit a wall, he just figured out how to get over that wall,” Stapleton explained.
And Tookes’ persistence paid off.
On Dec. 1, 2016 — fittingly, World AIDS Day — the first needle exchange program in the state of Florida opened.
“We serve 250 people regularly,” Tookes explains, “And we do an intake where we offer anonymous HIV and hepatitis C testing.”
The exchange also began offering the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone (Narcan) in April — a decision that has already prevented numerous tragedies.
In just the first month, 16 lives were saved.
“So many people are dying,” Tookes says. “We had a responsibility to do something about that.”
The impact was undeniable. One center visitor, struggling with addiction, shared his own story of when he saw someone in the midst of an overdose.
“I had my Narcan, and I sprayed him. Within a minute or so, he started breathing normal,” he explained. “We don’t want to die. None of us do.”
Without the exchange offering access to Narcan, though, these completely preventable deaths would become repeated tragedies.
With unintentional drug overdose a leading cause of preventable death in the United States, creating access to Narcan can have a huge impact on local communities.
“Everybody’s life is valuable,” Tookes says. “Everyone’s.”
And it was that conviction that helped Tookes see this cause through, as a medical student with a desire to make a difference and now as an advocate saving lives and preventing the spread of dangerous diseases.
Check out his incredible story below:
He saw an HIV epidemic in Miami and decided to stand up and take action.Posted by Upworthy on Wednesday, October 25, 2017
While Tookes began his journey in public health facing resistance and skepticism, his persistence — and his commitment to those most vulnerable in his community — has truly made a difference.