Cesar Rodriguez spent 17 years of his life as a heroin addict.
He overdosed on five separate occasions, only to be saved by first responders who administered him naloxone, or Narcan, an emergency treatment that counteracts the life-threatening effects of opioid overdose.
“If I didn’t have Narcan,” he said, “I wouldn’t be able to sit here and share my experience. I would’ve never had a shot to recover.”
Parent Lisa Conca also has observed the Narcan’s life-saving effects when her son overdosed on heroin.
“I had never even heard of Narcan until that day he overdosed and was taken to the hospital,” Conca said. “Narcan saves lives and gives our kids another chance to help them on the road to recovery.”
These comments came up during a community discussion on opioid overdose prevention on March 8 at North Tampa Behavioral Health, which is located in Wesley Chapel. The event was organized by the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention.
The panel discussion was part of a community-wide effort to provide education about opioid overdose and what individuals can do to save the lives of those suffering with the chronic illness of addiction.
Much of the panel addressed how to access and administer Narcan.
Narcan is the first and only FDA-approved nasal form of naloxone for the emergency treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose. The medication helps blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and restores breathing.
Opioids include heroin and prescription pain pills like morphine, codeine, oxycodone, methadone and Vicodin.
“Often the reason (over-dosers) end up passing is because the brain does not have oxygen. This medication helps alleviate that,” said Szilvia Boos Salmon, a pharmacist with Tampa Poison Control.
Along with the nasal spray, naloxone is available in an injectable form.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office is one of a number of growing law enforcement agencies to carry naloxone for possible overdose calls.
Pasco Sheriff Cpl. Sherry Johnson-Tandy said the agency has had over 60 deployments of Narcan. Each deployment was successful in preventing an overdose-related death, she said.
In addition to reversing overdoses, the medication is also for deputies and first responders who may become exposed or have incidental contact to illicit fentanyl or heroin at a particular crime scene.
Johnson-Tandy demonstrated how to safely and effectively administer both the nasal spray and injectable forms of naloxone. Free samples of Narcan were later distributed to the audience.
Johnson-Tandy said it’s onset time is anywhere between 1 minute to 3 minutes.
“It works almost just like an EpiPen,” she said.
“The best thing about this is, if you give it to someone and they don’t need it, it can’t hurt them,” she said, adding if someone overdosed on cocaine or stopped breathing for another reason, it won’t have adverse effects.
The Narcan medication might be needed more than ever.
Opioid overdoses increased by roughly 30 percent across the U.S., in just 14 months between 2016 and 2017, according to a new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC called the data a “wake up call to the fast-moving opioid overdose epidemic.” It recorded 142,000 overdoses in hospital emergency departments across the nation, between July 2016 and September 2017.
Although not all overdoses in the study were fatal, they are part of the unsettling toll of opioids. Nationwide in 2016, illicit and prescription drug overdoses killed 64,000 people.
The problem is growing locally, too, experts say.
Pasco County had the highest rate of hospitalization in the Suncoast Region for opioid overdoses, according to 2016 data from the Agency for Healthcare Administration.
Additionally, Pasco has tied for fifth highest out of the state’s 67 counties for drug overdose mortality rates over the last few years, according to county health rankings.
There were 165 overdoses in Pasco in 2017— matching numbers from the 2010 and 2011 prescription pill crisis, said Capt. Mike Jenkins, who oversees the narcotics unit for the special investigations division at the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.
There’s also been a gradual rise in fentanyl and heroin use in the county over the past year, he said.
Other topics covered during the session included how to prevent opioid addiction and avenues for long-term treatment of people who are dependent on opioids.
Speakers agreed it starts with education and advocacy.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Jenkins said. “It takes comprehensive, strategic partnerships to really move forward.”
“Start in the schools early, and educate kids as to how dangerous mom and dad’s pill bottles are,” said New Port Richey-based attorney James Magazine.
Communities must find ways to effectively integrate recovering addicts back into society after they receive treatment, Magazine said.
Rochelle Zwicharowski, a support specialist with the St. Petersburg-based Recovery Epicenter Foundation, said those who have been rehabilitated need to share their experiences.
“There’s 23 million people in recovery, and how many people do you know? We’re too quiet about it. If you’re in recovery, don’t be afraid to speak out about it because we do have to smash that stigma,” she said.
Revised April 3, 2018