Legislature to debate medic, police use of ketamine

David Heitz

(Diana Polekhina/Unsplash)

Perhaps nothing is more of a PTSD trigger for me than when I review stories about Elijah McClain.

But with the state legislature discussing changes today, May 7, to a policy overseeing police and paramedic use of ketamine, I must.

Like McClain, I was restrained by police (in Denver in my case) and injected with ketamine in 2019. This occurred after a man on 16th Street Mall called me a derogatory name and punched me in the face. I was experiencing homelessness at the time and was suffering from untreated mental illness.

Unlike McClain, I did not die after being given ketamine.

Police restrained me upon arrival by standing on top of my chest. It was difficult for me to breathe. This only agitated me further.

When paramedics arrived, I was strapped to a gurney -- arms, too. I could not move. I was terrified about what police or paramedics were going to do to me in such a vulnerable position.

Next, I felt a blade on the side of my neck. The paramedic made a slight incision and an IV was administered that way. I heard the lead paramedic say to the rookie: “Administer the ketamine.”

KDVR journalist leads way in Ketamine reporting

I was crying and wincing and terrified. When I lived in Los Angeles in my twenties (30 years ago), I became involved in the circuit party scene. We used to use ketamine as a club drug at raves. Even then, the young professionals I partied with frowned upon those who used the dangerous drug. People were known to go into “K holes” when they took ketamine. A K hole is like being in a conscious coma where you can’t move or speak.

I shared my story with the local news media and one reporter responded. Lori Jane Gilha has been on top of the ketamine and Elijah McClain stories more than any other reporter in Colorado or probably the nation.

She broke a story as part of the station’s “Problem Solvers” segment where body camera footage shows a cop encouraging a medic to sedate a subject with ketamine.

In body camera video first uncovered by the Problem Solvers, a sheriff’s deputy can be heard asking the medical crew ‘you guys can’t give him anything, can you?’” Gilha reported. “To which a paramedic replied, “We can give him ketamine, and he’ll be sleeping like a baby.”

Gilha’s journalism resulted in the state launching an inquiry into South Metro Fire Rescue. A man given ketamine ended up incubated in the hospital for three days.

“Ketamine is not FDA approved for the sedation of extremely agitated patients who experience a condition called excited delirium, but medical directors at agencies around the state can apply for a state waiver from the health department to use it for that purpose,” according to one of Gilha’s reports.

‘Hyper-aggressive, markedly agitated’ subjects given ketamine

Gilha talked to Dr. John Riccio, the medical director of South Metro Fire Rescue, about the use of the drug.

“Basically, the patient is hyper-aggressive, markedly agitated, combative, (and) can be delusional,” he told the Problem Solvers in the fall. “These are patients that you cannot reason with or talk down. These are patients that are totally out of control.”

I simply felt sheer terror the night the paramedics gave me ketamine. After lying on the gurney for a while, I heard the lead paramedic say, “Why haven’t you administered the ketamine?” I was still conscious and truly feared the ketamine would kill me based on what I knew about it and my previous history with it.

And then, lights out.

When I woke up in Denver Health hospital, I still was strapped to a gurney, arms, too. I began to holler for someone to untie me and made it quite clear I knew I had been injected with ketamine and was not happy about it.

Released onto the streets when ketamine wears off

The police must not have thought me much of a threat, because I was released back onto the streets, homeless, almost immediately after I woke up in the hospital. The hospital kept offering me food and even gave me some clothing.

They seemed to bend over backwards for me after I mentioned the ketamine. I remember the doctor saying, “I don’t think you’ll have problems with that in the future.”

Now legislation being discussed today, according to bill updates, could make the use of ketamine by first responders much less dangerous.

HB21-1251 is also known as “Appropriate Use of Chemical Restraints on a Person.”

Bill to be discussed today would make ketamine use safer

It reads:

“The bill requires an agency that uses a chemical restraint to ensure that a person administering ketamine, haloperidol, or any other medication that is severely dependent on the weight of an individual or may result in a severe or adverse reaction with improper dosage in a nonhospital setting does so when staff trained in the administration of such medication can monitor the vital signs of the individual and weigh the individual to ensure accurate dosage.

“Absent a justifiable emergency, a person shall not administer a chemical restraint in a nonhospital setting to subdue, sedate, or chemically incapacitate an individual for alleged or suspected criminal, delinquent, or suspicious conduct.

“The bill prohibits a peace officer from using, requesting, causing, directing, or influencing the use of a chemical restraint upon another person.”

As someone given ketamine by paramedics during a time of great duress, the process by which they administered it scared me. I support this legislation and hope nobody ever again must go through what I did.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at NewsBreakDave@gmail.com

Denver, CO

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