When Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney shows up at the scene of an opioid overdose, the victim is often blue and unresponsive.
When emergency responders administer Narcan, the person often “comes back to life,” breathing, moving and talking.
Narcan, also known as naloxone, is an opioid-overdose-reversal drug.
Delaney said he wishes people could see the moment when the drug works — dramatically saving a life.
“They are not always happy about it,” said Delaney. “But it provides them with a second chance.”
Delaney said his department administered 356 doses of Narcan in 2017, almost twice as much as in 2016.
Although the numbers are up, Delaney said he is hopeful that those numbers will eventually come down.
The fire chief stressed that he believes that use of the drug by his department will provide an opportunity for those addicted to opioids to get into treatment and to improve the quality of their lives.
He added the increasing use of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs has been a “game changer,” in the last several years. Often opioid users are unaware of the amount and nature of the fentanyl they are using, which is often mixed with heroin, he said.
“We get on scene, and we don’t know what kind of drug a person has used,” he said. “They aren’t even sure of exactly what they have used.”
The increasing use of Narcan by police and first responders has undoubtedly saved the lives of many who are struggling with addiction. The recovery community is hoping to get Narcan into the hands of people likely to come in contact with someone who has overdosed, including family members, co-workers and friends of those addicted to opioids.
Any adult in Pennsylvania can acquire Narcan at any state pharmacy that carries the drug without a prescription.
Carol Coolbaugh, of West Pittston, lost her son, Erik, to an overdose in 2009.
She is hopeful that increased access to Narcan will mean others won’t suffer the same loss.
Coolbaugh is encouraged by statistics that indicate first responders and government officials are ensuring that Narcan is available and seeking out funding to obtain it. However, she feels that there is still a long way to go in regard to removing stigma from its use.
Coolbaugh, founder of a nonprofit which seeks to educate and inform people about addiction, said people often believe that Narcan can be abused or that those administering it are enabling addicts to continue addictive behavior.
She points to her Facebook wall which says, “The only thing that Narcan enables is breathing.”
Clinical pharmacy specialist Francesca Chieffallo agrees.
Chieffallo, who has worked as an adjunct professor at Wilkes University, recently participated in an interdisciplinary effort among Misericordia, Marywood and Wilkes universities, to provide an opportunity to students to gain a better understanding.
Chieffalo oversaw the pharmaceutical education aspect of the effort which included Narcan training. She said, even as a supervisor, her participation was life-changing.
“As a pharmacist, I wanted to understand the use of Narcan in saving the lives of those who were overdosing,” she said. “There does continue to be some misconceptions about it, even among the medical community.”
Chieffalo, who oversaw about 10 Wilkes University pharmacy students participating in the program and providing information about the use of Narcan, said she was impressed both with the students understanding of the use of Narcan and their empathy for families struggling with the challenges of addiction.
As Narcan becomes more widely available and widely used, additional issues present themselves which will need to be addressed.
For example, at a recent doctor’s appointment, Narcan appeared on Carol Coolbaugh’s digital chart because she obtained it at a pharmacy.
Coolbaugh said she was somewhat concerned.
“I don’t know if they understand that Narcan isn’t person specific,” she said. “I would be using the drug for someone else who is overdosing.”
Wyoming County Human Services Executive director, Michael Donahue, who participates in Narcan training in the Wyoming Valley, said he believes that we are moving in the right direction, continuing the dialogue about addiction and reducing stigma associated with it.
“If you know that your loved one has an opioid-use disorder and are actively using, having Naloxone on hand gives you a chance to save them from overdosing,” he said. “Naloxone administration as soon as possible gives them a second chance to live their lives.”