ELKHART — Jeremy Replogle was a teddy bear of a man, the kind of gregarious guy who made a person feel special in his presence.

A few years ago, the man nicknamed “Gweedo” was prescribed Vicodin for a job-related back injury. His family had wondered what was going in the last couple of years, when he became more reclusive. They eventually learned he had become addicted to the pain killer and turned to the cheaper and more available heroin.

After once trying a residential rehab program — insurance at the time would pay for only a small stay, and he later had no insurance — he left town to try to escape the influences of his Elkhart social circle. He sought help three times in the last nine months of his life.

He returned and landed a welding job at Lippert Components. He had been clean two weeks. It was as if the old Gweedo had returned to them.

“You get your first paycheck tonight, bub,” his sister, Shannon Powell, told him.

“I promise I won’t, Sissy,” he replied.

But the next day, a roommate would later tell police he went into Gweedo’s room to wake him for that night’s shift, but Gweedo was unresponsive.

The 33-year-old was pronounced dead on May 13, overdosed on heroin.

Gweedo’s family and close friends were stunned. A couple of weeks after the funeral, Shannon and Gweedo’s stepbrother, Sam Callantine, were talking.

“We should do something,” he told her.

“Yeah, we should,” she said.

So they formed a group called Gweedos Purple Shamrocks, whose goal is to spread the word about heroin’s evils and, as it progresses, provide a hot line for the administration of heroin’s legal antidote and resources for rehab programs.

Saving people from themselves

Indiana State Police Sgt. Jason Miller has begun training state troopers to administer Narcan, which is a fast-acting antidote to opioid overdoses.

Miller, in a state police radio program last week, described the signs of such an overdose: blue lips and fingertips, dilated pupils, gasping or other signs of impaired breathing.

Opioid painkillers or heroin affect the brain’s receptors, which produces a numbing effect or a euphoria, he said. But it can also interfere with brain signals that regulate breathing.

“They self-suffocate,” Miller said. “Basically the effort here is to save people from themselves.”

Indiana law bestows immunity on those who call 911 for someone they suspect has overdosed. And as of July 1, lay people can buy Narcan over the counter from drugstores to deliver the potentially lifesaving drug.

Narcan is available as an injectable, like an Epi pen, or with a device that sprays the drug into each nostril, Miller said.

“At the end of the day, it’s illegal, but we don’t want to lose any more lives than we have to,” he said, referring to Indiana’s rising rates of heroin deaths. “Once again, it’s become a sort of cult, hip thing to do.”

Gweedo’s family believes heroin proved too much for him to kick, despite the strength he had shown in the past in cold-turkey quitting smoking and alcohol.

“That’s why a lot of addicts keep on using, because they have no choice,” said Nicholas Neff, a close friend and board member of the group, who points out a shortage of treatment options for heroin’s fierce grip.

“That’s one that really grabs ahold of your soul,” Sam said.

Nicholas and Shannon were Narcan-certified in a seminar in Lake Station, Ind. Sam and others will attend a certification class in LaPorte this weekend.

They say there’s an upcoming session in Granger, but they have not found such a class in Elkhart County.

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