Still from the Light of Life's "Eye of the Needle" documentary.

At Sojourner House, a residential treatment facility for mothers and their children in Pittsburgh’s East End, executive director Joann Cyganovich sits with women who’ve come back from the dead.

At least half of the residents here are overdose survivors, Cyganovich says, and many have had to be resuscitated. “It’s an experience that often changes a person’s life,” she says. “When you’re unconscious and basically dead, and you only come back because of emergency CPR and a couple doses of Narcan, it transforms you. That’s what we focus on here: life after overdose.”

It’s a common story in Pittsburgh, where the alarm bells of the opioid crisis have been ringing for nearly a decade. Beyond the veneer of sports teams, restaurants and hip hotels that increasingly define our changing city, addiction lingers like yesterday’s soot clouds: an ever-present toxin that’s quietly killing our loved ones and neighbors. Since 2009, thousands have died in western Pennsylvania, leaving grieving families and “desperate” public health officials to wonder what it will take to stop the scourge.

Though the sheer magnitude of the crisis threatens to overwhelm communities and governments alike, Pittsburghers from every sector — from tech to policy to nonprofits — are stepping up to offer assistance. Whether by treating addiction directly, raising awareness through art and public discussion or finding new ways to prevent relapse, leaders and institutions across the region are battling the epidemic with education, legislation and hope — not to mention wearable fitness trackers.

Here’s a look at some of their latest efforts.

Light of Life’s “Eye of the Needle” art installation aims to raise awareness of addiction and its effects. Photo courtesy of Light of Life.
Light of Life’s “Eye of the Needle” art installation aims to raise awareness of addiction and its effects. Photo courtesy of Light of Life.

Light of Life’s Light Line

When addiction creeps into a person’s life, it can be hard to know where to turn. That’s why Light of Life Rescue Mission — a Northside-based emergency shelter, food pantry and treatment facility — launched Light Line, a new helpline created to help Pittsburghers navigate available resources. Staffed Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Light Line (1-888-412-0036) is “an easy way for people to access resources, whether they need help themselves, a loved one needs help, or if someone wants to get involved and help others in need,” says Kate Wadsworth, Light of Life’s spokesperson.

Established as a soup kitchen in 1952, Light of Life has always gotten calls from the community, Wadsworth says. But lately, the nonprofit — which has evolved to run programs for both men and women — has noticed a dramatic uptick in the number of people seeking assistance, largely due to opioids. “We’ve been working in the field for a very long time,” says Wadsworth, “and there’s been a shift in why people come to us. We’re definitely seeing a crisis, and it’s touching a lot of people.”

In addition to launching Light Line to give those seeking treatment a clear starting point, Light of Life is working to raise public awareness and empathy. To that end, the ministry commissioned an 11-minute documentary, “Eye of the Needle,” about the opioid crisis and its impact on Pittsburgh. An accompanying interactive art installation (for which Light of Life is working to find a space) re-creates a homeless camp: tents are both heated and cooled to represent what it’s like to battle addiction and the elements at the same time.

The documentary and art installation were commissioned to reflect the difficulty of addiction and to raise the level of conversation. “We’re trying to show how powerful this epidemic is,” says Wadsworth. “It touches people of every demographic. We want to break down the stigma and have honest conversations about recovery.”

Behaivior’s Wearable Technology

One Pittsburgh startup aims to bring powerful new weapons to the fight against opioids: data and artificial intelligence (AI). Founded in January at Ascender’s AI Hackathon, Behaivior originally set out to create software that could find patterns among large sets of data, says co-founder Ryan O’Shea. But during the company’s Hackathon pitch, a lawyer from West Virginia stood up to speak.

“He’d lost seven clients to opioid addiction in the last year alone,” says O’Shea. “That’s when we realized that our predictive algorithms could be focused on a specific problem area. I think all of us have been touched personally or know people who have been touched personally by this epidemic, and it’s only increasing. So we want to get a solution out there as soon as possible to help start saving lives.”

The idea works like this: a person in recovery dons a wearable fitness tracker, something not unlike a Fitbit. The tracker looks for behavioral patterns and physiological changes that, according to clinical research, correlate with opioid use or potential relapse — increased heart rate, body temperature, stress levels and so on. When such changes are detected, Behaivior’s software sends out an alert, which can be customized to the user’s preferences. It might go to a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, for example, or to an anonymous helpline. Or, if the user elects to not alert anyone at all, he or she could instead be shown a pre-programmed message from a loved one (or something else that reminds the user of his or her reasons for remaining sober).

That’s not all these devices can do. Turn the page to find out more.

As the trackers collect more data, Behaivior’s algorithms will search for additional patterns that predict opioid use, some of which researchers may not even be aware of yet. “Not only are we making a device to make life better and help solve a problem, but there’s a chance for some really useful scientific discoveries in that process,” says O’Shea. “There are monitors out there that can tell you when drugs or alcohol have been consumed, but they can’t tell you how to prevent consumption from happening. So these wearables would be the first proactive tool that treatment centers could deploy.”

Ryan Rydzewski

Ryan Rydzewski is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Lawrenceville, where he reads on his porch and holds up traffic on his bike. Follow him on Twitter @RyanRydzewski