NC Harm Reduction’s Overdose Prevention Project – A Look Back at the First Year

NCHRC’s Overdose Prevention Project – A Look Back at the First Year

This August 1st 2014 marks one year since the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) officially launched the Overdose Prevention Project (OPP). The OPP focuses on the dual goals of educating the public on overdose prevention and response and providing overdose prevention kits containing naloxone, a medication that reverses drug overdose from opioids such as methadone, heroin, and prescription painkillers.

With opioid overdose fatalities claiming over 1000 lives a year in North Carolina and slated to become the state’s leading cause of unintentional injury death by 2017, it is necessary to implement a common sense solution to the problem. Enter, naloxone, a medication simple and easy enough to be administered even by people with no medical training. In one short year NCHRC’s naloxone program has grown from a handful of distributors to over 20 volunteer dispensers in 16 counties across the state.

“My favorite part of working with NCHRC is when I receive a phone call from someone thanking me for providing them the naloxone that saved their friend or family member's life,” says Cat, a volunteer dispenser in Charlotte. “NCHRC is truly saving lives. I know they saved mine when they gave this once frustrated and overwhelmed recovering person who used drugs a purpose and hope by allowing me to be a part of their solution-oriented program.”

In one year, NCHRC has dispensed 3,000 kits to 2,231 people and received reports of 115 successful overdose reversals. The kits were distributed through methadone clinics, high-risk neighborhoods, drug user unions, support groups for parents whose children are using, law enforcement departments, community events, treatment centers, churches, and other venues. Distribution at methadone clinics has been particularly valuable in getting naloxone to people who can use it to save lives.

Kathy Rubendall, Clinic Director at a CRC-Health methadone clinic in Asheville, witnessed an overdose reversal in the clinic not long after they began dispensing naloxone through NCHRC.

“A young woman was unresponsive on the couch in our lobby area,” says Rubendall. “Our onsite nurse did a sternum rub, called 911 and injected her with naloxone. It brought her back and allowed us enough time to get emergency personnel on site to help her.”

In an overdose situation where every second counts, naloxone can buy valuable time. Just ask Trish from Greensboro, who reversed an overdose with an NCHRC-provided kit in early June. She was enjoying a picnic at a park in Greensboro when her adult son came running up from the adjacent neighborhood screaming, “She’s not breathing!” Without hesitation Trish called 911, followed her son to a nearby apartment and injected his motionless girlfriend with naloxone.

When the ambulance arrived 35 minutes later, the medics told Trish if she hadn’t used naloxone, the young woman would have died. “It felt great to help her,” says Trish. “Right now we could have been burying her, but instead she’s still alive.”

Stories like Trish’s are popping up all over North Carolina as drug using and non-drug using members of the community save lives with naloxone. NCHRC is the only organization in North Carolina that distributes overdose prevention kits directly to active drug users and their loved ones, people using prescription pills not as prescribed, and people who use methadone. NCHRC also educates the community on how to recognize and respond to opioid overdose, conducts outreach in neighborhoods that are the hardest hit by the drug war, and combats the stigma against people who use drugs through targeted media pieces.

Pastor James Sizemore distributes naloxone out of his church in Fayetteville because he believes that "distributing naloxone is not just a social responsibility directed to those that are addictive and non-addictive opiate users, but it is also a spiritual responsibility…Everyone suffers from the pain of opiate use and abuse…God has given us this tool,” he says.

Even law enforcement are jumping on board with naloxone. The Pitt County Sheriff’s Department equipped all their deputies with naloxone in May 2014.

The Carrboro Police Department, which NCHRC helped train last spring, is waiting for final protocol from the Orange County EMS before they launch their program. Other departments are taking steps to start programs as well.

“There are times when [law enforcement] get to an overdose before the fire department or paramedics,” says Sgt David Rose of the Winston Salem Police Department. “[With naloxone] we have a chance to save a life.”

Across the state and the nation, attitudes towards drug use seem to be shifting, evidenced by efforts to repeal minimum sentencing laws, the success of ban the box initiatives, and the growing number of states that have passed 911 Good Samaritan and naloxone access laws. Capitalizing on the success of NCHRC’s Overdose Prevention Project, the agency will continue to advocate for laws and programs that reduce the negative consequences of drug use and protect users and their loved ones from preventable disease and death.

There are many ways that people can get involved in NCHRC with overdose prevention and future advocacy efforts in 2015 and beyond. “I would love to see some of the people who have asked how they can help to show their support by writing op-eds, calling their legislators, showing up to general assembly, and of course making naloxone kits,” says Leilani Attilio, NCHRC’s Advocacy and Medical Coordinator. “The wind is at our backs and we need to go with it.”