Narcan in the Northland: A Second Chance
Overdose Antidote Keeping People Alive
St. Louis County First Responders are now carrying a drug that saves people from fatal opioid overdoses, giving them a second chance at life.
Naloxone, which can come in a nasal spray known as Narcan is keeping opioid users alive.
Cloquet’s Fire Department has been carrying a form of Naloxone for decades, but says in the last few years they’ve seen a huge spike in overdose calls.
“The scenes are chaotic; the person is unresponsive on the floor. Their color is usually blue,” said Battalion Chief Steve Kolodge.
Even in small towns like Cloquet, overdoses happen at all hours, any day of the week. The fire department has responded to several calls in just one day on regular basis.
St. Louis County leads the entire state of Minnesota in opiate deaths per capita, 31 people died of overdoses in the county last year alone.
The number of overdoses is far greater because many victims are brought back to life thanks to a window of time that lasts 8-10 minutes and Narcan, which reverses the effects the drug has taken on the brain.
“It’s like waking someone up from a really deep sleep,” said Kolodge. “It will pull someone that is technically and clinically dead, bring them back to life.”
It’s been used on people like 26-year-old Brandon Elmore.
“When he was younger, people would always tell me what a nice respectful boy he was,” said Brandon’s mom, Michele Lewandowski.
When Elmore grew up in Hermantown, drugs like heroin were only a thing of the past.
“He liked to lay in the snowbank and play with cars,” said Lewandowski. “So I kind of thought he must be a northern boy if he could lay in the snowbank and play for hours.”
With big dreams, and many friends Brandon had plans for the future.
“He really wanted to have a family, he loved kids,” said Lewandowski.
She never thought her only son was months away from becoming someone she didn’t recognize.
“Things started to disappear and his behavior was changing,” said Lewandowksi. “I said ‘I believe you’re on drugs. And I would like to know what you’re taking. He came out and told me it was heroin.”
“I asked to see his arms to see if he had gotten to the point where he was shooting up, he started to cry and said he didn’t want to show me his arms,” said Lewandowski. “He didn’t want me to hate him. I said I will never hate you. I’m the one person in the world that will help you.”
As Michele and so many with loved ones fighting addiction have found, help is no longer just getting an addict to a treatment center. It’s about expecting the worst and being ready for it.
Maggie Kazel with Rural Aids Action Network offers an open door in downtown Duluth. It’s a place where people can get and be trained for free on how to use the overdose antidote, Narcan on their friends and family members just in case they need it.
“I love it when a mother says, I have two addicts in my family,” said Kazel. “I send her home after I’ve trained her with two or three kits, saying I want you to give one to your son, to your other son and show your husband how to use them.”
She offers to help keep an addict breathing one more day without shame, hopeful that someday drug addiction will be widely viewed as a brain disease.
“None of us gets to be judge and jury about who lives and who doesn’t live,” said Maggie Kazel. “Recently heard someone say,’ if you know someone used Narcan ten times you know how they feel about their lives,’ and I thought no. That just means their disease is that big, we don’t get to judge.”
Demand for Narcan here is very high, they’ve given out 1,200 kits in Duluth.
As the shelves empty, the office is filling with stories of survival including nearly 100 lives saved to date.
Duluth police have taken note training their officers and stocking up on the drug themselves.
“Our number one mandate is to save life, preserve life,” said Lt. Jeff Kazel, Commander with the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force. “That’s what this is.”
Duluth Police have saved 11 people since May.
“It’s a huge thing when someone is addicted to give people a chance,” said Lt. Kazel.
Life after a miracle however, is complicated.
They’re law enforcement officers and even though laws may be broken by a person who is overdosing they won’t, and can’t prosecute the people they use Narcan on.
In 2014 Steve’s Law passed in Minnesota, legally protecting anyone involved with helping someone during an overdose.
“It’s good and bad,” said Lt. Kazel. “It’s encouraging people to call and save lives instead of dumping people on the curb and taking off. But there is a loophole in that in the past we had people overdosing and some of them would be charged, and that would result in them getting court ordered treatment. Now you’re seeing cases where people are overdosing and not getting charged. A day or two they’re released and overdosing again.”
When Cloquet Firefighters respond to an overdose often it’s a familiar face.
“We tend to see what we call, frequent fliers,” said Kolodge. “We’ve seen these people several times. Maybe in the back of their mind, they’re thinking we’re going to be their safety net. If they overdose, we’ll be there to put them out of it. It’s Russian Roulette is what it is.”
A game of chances that parents like Michele Lewandowski know can sometimes bring home the most valuable prize of life when it works.
“(When Brandon overdosed) from what it sounds like he went down and hit his face,” said Lewandowski. “He broke his glasses, overdoses and was given Narcan.”
But the next time can just as easily end in losing it all.
“He said he was so scared he would never do it again and three weeks later he did it again,” said Lewandowski. “But no one was there to give him Narcan. I know he didn’t want to die, he was just looking for a little comfort. At least that’s what I think. He was full of life. He didn’t want to die.”
Narcan is now being sold at many CVS stores. For more information about the drug, click here.
Whenever someone is saved with Narcan it’s strongly advised they are taken immediately to the hospital because they are still at risk at overdosing once the Narcan wears off.
It’s policy for EMS and Fire to take anyone given Narcan straight to the hospital.
We discovered what happens next isn’t what you might expect, and explains why so many people continue to die from addiction in St. Louis County, even with a miracle drug on their side.
The story continues tomorrow night at nine p.m.