‘I always believed I was going to die by the needle.’ 5 counties get help reversing overdoses


Counties with some of the highest rates of overdose deaths are going to get some extra help in preventing them.

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition says it will use a $1 million grant from the Aetna Foundation to teach more people in five rural areas how to prevent deaths and guide more people addicted to drugs into treatment.

“Too many people are dying in our rural zones, and we want to change that,” said Robert Childs, NC Harm Reduction Coalition executive director.

Drug overdose is the top cause of accidental death in North Carolina, claiming nearly four lives each day. In 2016, 1,384 people in North Carolina died from an unintentional opioid overdose, a 39 percent increase from the previous year, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The Aetna Foundation is the grant-making arm connected to the insurance giant. The foundation wants to work with “effective community partners who have a long track record of working in local communities,” said its president, Dr. Garth Graham.

The coalition will use the money to help pay for 11 employees who work in Johnston, Cumberland, Vance, Haywood and Brunswick counties.

State officials are focused on reducing opioid addiction and deaths. The problem defies simple solutions, said state Attorney General Josh Stein. “It’s going to require prevention, enforcement, treatment and recovery,” he said. “Before someone can get into treatment and recovery, they have to be alive.”

The NC Harm Reduction Coalition is a nonprofit that distributes naloxone to people who are at high risk of overdose and to law enforcement agencies. Naloxone quickly reverses opioid overdoses.

“With the rise of fentanyl in the drug supply, a lot of people are overdosing faster,” Childs said. “Even if everybody calls 911 immediately and 911 comes, we need to give people who use drugs and people who love people who use drugs access to life saving naloxone,” he said.

Ashley McCullen, 30, a Wayne County resident who joined the coalition at an announcement of the grant Tuesday, said she went from having what she called “a perfect childhood” to near death from drug addiction.

McCullen, who is now in recovery, figures she’s overdosed 20 to 30 times. Her mother has used naloxone to reverse some of those overdoses. About a year ago, McCullen said she brought her brother back from a “massive overdose.”

Heroin and opioids “really tore my family apart,” she said.

“I’ve been in and out of recovery for four years,” she said. “I just keep getting back up. I don’t choose to live like this. I believe I suffer from an aggressive and chronic illness. I always believed I was going to die by the needle. Until I was introduced to recovery, I didn’t believe there was a way out.”

Childs said it’s important to keep getting lifesaving medicine to people who overdose and keep connecting them to drug treatment.

“Whether it’s the first connection or the 80th, I don’t care,” he said.

The $1 million for North Carolina is part of a larger $6 million the foundation is donating to address the opioid epidemic.

The foundation is in the final stages of selecting other states that will receive a grant.

Camila Molina: 919-829-4538, @Cmolina