The man’s face was blue when Johnston County paramedic Jennifer Peachee reached him on the side of N.C. 42 in Clayton more than a year ago.
After he rear-ended the car in front of him, the man was grabbing at his throat, and people nearby had pulled him out of the driver’s seat. Peachee said she and her fellow paramedic checked for hives or a rash or any other allergy symptom and were preparing to administer a dose of epinephrine.
But first, she said, they tried something else – naloxone, a drug county EMS workers have carried for a number of years to reverse overdoses from heroin and opiate-based painkillers. The man was talking within a minute.
Heroin is on the rise nationally and increasingly in Johnston County. While county paramedics have carried the overdose drug in their toolbox for years, next month the Clayton Police Department will be the first law enforcement agency in the county to put naxolene it in the hands of officers.
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“We’re seeing a small increase in calls relating to opioid use,” said Clayton Police Chief Wayne Bridges. “If you look across the county and the state of North Carolina, it’s exploding. To not respond would leave us a day late and a dollar short.”
Bridges and Josh Holloman, the Johnston EMS chief, insist Clayton and Johnston don’t have a drug problem. Still, heroin use and opioid painkiller abuse are drug ills they’re seeing more frequently.
Bridges said Clayton police have responded to five overdoses in the past year, but he said that number is likely low. Welfare checks by other agencies and EMS calls for unresponsive people could also be overdose victims. When Peachee responded to the blue-faced man, for example, it was a call for a car crash.
Bridges points to numbers from the state that say 1,100 people die from overdoses each year and that heroin-related deaths have increased 565 percent in six years.
Administered as a spray into an unconscious person’s nose, the naxolene “scrubs” opiates from the brain receptors of someone overdosing, Bridges said. The drug typically works within a couple of minutes, and once they wake up, the revived can sometimes become violent.
“They’re going from stoned to stone-cold sober very rapidly,” Bridges said. “You’ve fixed the immediate problem of the opioids affecting the brain, so they go into a semi-withdrawal, so they’re not happy.”
Often, police officers are the first to respond to a call because they’re already in their cars on patrol. For that reason, Bridges said, it was important for his officers to carry the drug.
“We had a couple cases last year of suspected heroin overdoses, but without Narcan, they had to just sit there and monitor them until EMS arrived,” Bridges said.
When Johnston County EMS first started using naloxone, it called the initiative Project Lazarus after the biblical figure raised from the dead. According to county health department records, EMS workers used the drug around 200 times in 2014. Last year, the county reported another 357 overdoses.
Peachee said it’s hard to gauge the increase in heroin use countywide. She’s administered naxolene just once, but other paramedics, she said, have had to use it maybe five times.
Holloman said the number of times naxolene is given isn’t the best indicator of how many overdoses occur in Johnston County, because his paramedics sometimes use the drug as something of a diagnostic tool. He said if it doesn’t work, then the patient isn’t overdosing on heroin or narcotics.
“It’s a simple drug to use, it has no side effects and only does one thing, reverse the effects of narcotics,” Holloman said.
Someone overdosing on heroin doesn’t stir much sympathy in some, but both Bridges and Holloman said every life is worth saving.
“My primary job is the protection of life first and property second,” Bridges said. “Someone with the mindset [that an overdose shouldn’t be reversed] is pretty messed up.”
Holloman said the job of a paramedic is saving lives, not determining who lives or who dies, and that every saved life is a celebration.
“At the end of the day, from an EMS perspective, we don’t choose who we help and who we’re not going to help,” Holloman said. “I’m in the business of helping people. ... If you see someone not breathing very well and can give them a simple medication to bring them back, that’s a great feeling.”
Clayton police officers will start training with the drug this month and carry it in the field in June. Bridges said the department received a small supply from the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition but bought more. He said that not every officer will carry it, but that it will be in the field at all times.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson