GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — A Greene County sheriff’s deputy in Thursday’s Narcan training sighed when asked if he’d directly worked any drug overdoses.
“I don’t have enough fingers on both hands to count how many I’ve worked,” he said.
They may be wearied by the seemingly unending rise in overdoses, but the officer and his colleagues have a powerful tool in their kits and an eager partner ready to get them as much as they need.
It’s Narcan, or naloxone — a powerful opioid overdose reversing agent that’s administered using a fairly simple nasal spray — and it’s a critical component of the strategy known as “harm reduction.”
“Y’all heard it — it clicked,” Brooke Burleson told officers as she demonstrated Narcan administration on Kahla Cobb, her fellow Regional Overdose Prevention Specialist with the Sullivan County Anti-Drug Coalition (SCAD).
“When it clicks it’s done, you can’t use it again. We’re gonna wait here and we can be checking pulse,” said Burleson, who like Cobb is both in recovery herself from substance use disorder and the beneficiary of Narcan.
“I overdosed and … Narcan saved my life,” Burleson said after the training. “And I’m only here today breathing because of that.”
Burleson, Cobb and the team at SCAD have found willing and eager harm reduction partners in several area law enforcement agencies, including Greene County.
Sheriff Wesley Holt has embraced the partnership and said from road deputies to school resource officers, his deputies have Narcan. Holt said he’s never seen the risk of overdose, and fatal overdose, like he is seeing now.
“When he had the oxys and the roxys, the pills when they’d go to Florida and get their prescriptions for whatever they’d issue it for, we didn’t see the fatalities like we’re seeing now,” Holt said, referring to the height of the “pill mill” epidemic more than a decade ago.
The primary culprit is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine that is also cheap to manufacture — and finding its way into everything from methamphetamine and cocaine to “pressed pills” made to look like legitimate percocet or other painkilling opiates. But the fentanyl’s not regulated and users never know how much they’re getting, or often, that they’re getting it at all.
“You’ve got a lot of families that are suffering right now,” Holt told News Channel 11. “The loved ones that get hooked on this stuff and that’s what the cartel wants.”
Nick Milligan, a patrol captain who was attending the training, pointed to a page of statistics. It showed the GCSD worked 18 overdoses in 2019 and 23 in 2020. The number jumped to 40 last year, while the 2022 year-to-date printed number — 32 — had a line drawn through it in pen and a “33” written in its place.
The nearly 30-year law enforcement veteran was brimming with enthusiasm as Burleson and Cobb spent about an hour reviewing how to help someone who’s overdosed.
“We just got a new shipment of Narcan in so I wanted to make sure everybody knew exactly how to use it and the purpose for it,” he said.
First on the scene
Milligan said having trained and equipped officers carrying Narcan was important for a couple reasons. For one, patrolling deputies are often within five minutes of most residences in the large county.
“Because of the call volume the ambulance may be busy or may take them a little bit longer to get there,” Milligan said. “We are generally on the scene a lot of times quicker than the EMS is.”
None of his officers has ever come upon an overdose scene without Narcan and watched a victim die. Milligan wants to keep it that way.
“To be there and not be able to help would be, it’d be hard to deal with.”
Milligan said there’s a second reason. Just over a year ago, an EMS worker and a deputy who were aiding an overdose victim ended up suffering symptoms themselves. Official literature shows that while the likelihood of dangerous effects from skin contact is low, if fentanyl is in the air and breathed it can make people sick.
Burleson and Cobb also warned officers not to use hand sanitizer if they think they’ve gotten the drug on their skin because that can give it a pathway into the bloodstream — and that touching exposed skin to mucous membranes also heightens risk.
Milligan said he hasn’t seen any signs of a slowdown in overdose cases. He said methamphetamine remains the most common drug in Greene County busts, but that it is laced with fentanyl ever more frequently.
“I’m glad Kahla and Brooke are here to give this information to us and to supply us with the Narcan that we do use, and hopefully we can save someone’s life with it,” Milligan said.
Living proof that hope should always remain
No law enforcement was on the scene, but Burleson probably wouldn’t have been alive and telling deputies important facts about overdoses if she hadn’t had Narcan in her own purse when she overdosed.
Moments after explaining that a victim might immediately want more drugs after coming to thanks to Narcan (it creates immediate withdrawal) and showing deputies tools to prevent aspiration (keep the victim on their side), Burleson stood outside in the fall sunshine and shared her personal experience.
“I am a person with lived experience in addiction and recovery,” Burleson said.
Burleson was carrying Narcan in her own purse and the people with her knew that when she overdosed. Narcan wasn’t as widely available then as it has become over the past year, but Burleson had tried to practice harm reduction in her own life.
“A syringe service program was offering that lifesaving medication, and I thought, ‘why not, I’ll grab some, you never know,'” she said.
Burleson said she believes she’s alive today so she can help other people limit the harm substance use disorder is having in their own lives in hopes the day will come when they enter recovery.
“My mission and my purpose in life is to assist the next person suffering in any way I can,” she said. “You never know what somebody’s capable of, and as long as someone is alive there is hope for that individual’s life.”
For his part, GCSD’s Milligan said he is beginning to see more and more openness to harm reduction — a term he didn’t even know the meaning of a couple years ago — in Northeast Tennessee’s generally conservative society.
“It’s here whether you want to believe it or not and it’s something we’re going to have to deal with,” he said. “And if we’re not prepared to deal with it it’s going to be a whole lot worse in the end.”