Tue. May 17th, 2022

San Francisco, CA

The ‘Trusted Angel’ Secretly Saving Lives

After nearly a decade on the streets, Tracey Helton Mitchell found recovery. With a little ingenuity (and Reddit), she has stopped more than 250 people from fatally overdosing.


“I started sending people vials of naloxone” —Tracey Helton Mitchell

Anyone in the world can see Tracey Helton Mitchell getting high, pulling down her pants and shooting up, her matter-of-factness as jarring as the needle going into her thigh. It’s one of the first scenes in the 1999 HBO documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street, which follows five “strung out” users in the alleys of San Francisco. At 25 Tracey already shuffles like a bag lady. She gets off heroin for six months, but only because she’s thrown in jail. Within eight hours of her release, she’s fixing to get high again, and even goes on to become a full-time drug dealer. “It looks like I’ve been f-ckin’ dropped in a dumpster…and just been picked at by rats,” she says at one point, displaying the bruises up and down her legs from injecting there. And she can’t seem to find a way out: “It seems like getting there should be so easy,” she says. “But then what am I going to do, what am I really going to do?…. Even if wasn’t doing heroin, I don’t know what the f-ck I would want to do with my life.” The film has no happy endings.

But in real life there is a happy ending. The self-described junkie and convicted felon found exactly what she wanted to do: Today, at 47, Tracey is a mother of three with a master’s degree who works for the City and County of San Francisco, managing mental health counseling programs. And thousands call her “our trusted angel.”

After nearly a decade on the streets, Helton Mitchell finally began recovery, which she describes in her 2016 book, The Big Fix. Giving advice and encouragement on social media, she stayed connected to those still in the grips of the drug she left behind. And that led her to the sub-Reddit r/opiates, which has more than 40,000 members, most of them using pills or heroin and wanting to do so more safely. She noticed many of them asking one another how to get naloxone, the drug that can reverse an opioid overdose (Narcan being the best-known brand). They wanted to have it on hand in case they, or a friend, needed it. “Access was very limited back then,” says Helton Mitchell, who joined as traceyh415 and decided to exchange private messages with some of them. “So I started sending people vials of naloxone.”

That was four years ago. Since then, using her own money and random donations from strangers, she has been sending 10 to 20 care packages a week and seeing chains like:

“Tracey has saved another life praise you” —54883.
“How many people would be dead were it not for her care packages?”—rhymes_with_tar.
“She really is a godsend.” —ohioraw.
“Thank you, Tracey! You are our angel.” —jessika_anne.

Today naloxone is much easier to get than when she started: Although it’s a prescription drug, in most states (including California), you can buy it in a pharmacy without seeing a doctor. “Many people who contact me now just can’t afford it,” says Helton Mitchell. “So I first try to match them to a local program where they can get it free and learn how to use it. And when there’s no nearby program, I’ll send the naloxone.” (Mailing the drug is not necessarily 100 percent legal— laws regarding naloxone access, mailing prescription drugs, and sharing prescription drugs vary from state to state—though experts Glamourspoke to didn’t know of any cases of someone being arrested for mailing it.) From the beginning, she says, “I thought, This is something I can do with my mom schedule that could have an impact.” And it has: Based on the grateful responses Helton Mitchell has gotten, she estimates she’s saved nearly 270 lives. “There was one guy I sent it to who lived in such a remote area the paramedics couldn’t make it to his house for 45 minutes,” she says. “And another IV drug user told the story of how his mom had a glass of wine and took her pain medicine and had an overdose. He ended up using the naloxone to save her.” And those are just the ones she hears about.

Helton Mitchell’s harm-reduction care packages often include clean needles because when users can’t get sterile ones, the reality is, they share, which can lead to more serious problems, like HIV and hepatitis C. Giving users the tools to do drugs may seem counterintuitive, but supplying new needles keeps them alive and healthy until they’re ready to try recovery, and studies show such programs don’t encourage more drug use and can lead people to treatment, which is why many cities are embracing this approach.

Helton Mitchell says you don’t ever have to go near a needle or send supplies to help someone struggling—although she strongly suggests that everyone learn how to administer naloxone and carry it with them. Even easier, “if you know somebody who’s using heroin, just talk to them,” she says. “This drug makes people so isolated. You can say something like, ‘You know, I don’t understand what you’re doing, but I’m here for you.’ Or ‘Why don’t we go out to the movies?’ Or just ‘What’s going on with you?’ It means that someone cares.”

Her questions and interest are why she’s so beloved by all those users on Reddit who are trying to stay alive. When Helton Mitchell recently announced to the group that she was looking to partner with a nonprofit to turn her care package operation into an above-board program, commenters piled on for the applause.

“I love you, Tracey!” wrote UsamaBinNoddin. “You saved my life twice. Thank you again for everything you do!”

“If I was a religious man, I’d say you were doing the Lord’s work,” chimed in another member, waiting_with_lou. “It continues to amaze me how much of your own time and effort [goes] into helping degenerates like us (kidding).”

Cal_throwaway told the group, “Tracey has been an invaluable asset to this community for so long, and her list of lives saved is in the triple digits.” And then: “Tracey, you’re the guardian angel we need!”

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