Portland puts overdose-reversing drug on the streets

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PORTLAND — From the outside, it looked like a package of cold-relief medicine.

Inside was something to combat a condition far more lethal than the common cold.

“I’ve been waiting to have this since I began recovery,” Fred Copeman said June 22 after he was handed the inhaler of naloxone, known by its Narcan trade name and for the ability to reverse opioid overdoses.

“You can’t recover if you are dead,” said Copeman, who has been in recovery from substance use disorder for 2 1/2 years, and is a board member of Hope Acts.

Copeman was among about 100 people June 22 at HopeGateWay, 509 Forest Ave., where city staff provided instruction in CPR and wound suppression training, as well as the basics of Narcan use.

“We are glad to work with our community partners to make (Narcan) more accessible,” the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill of HopeGateWay said. “Some of the people I admire most are in recovery.”

Once used solely by city EMTs responding to overdoses, Narcan will soon be available without a prescription in pharmacies. The inhalers were distributed by the city Overdose Prevention Project and volunteers with the Needle Exchange, which is part of the India Street Public Health Center.

Making Narcan more accessible is only part of the battle, said Zoe Odlin-Platz, the community health promotion specialist who coordinates the Needle Exchange.

“Once you get the basics, it is pretty easy,” she said about administering Narcan, but she stressed the importance of calling 911 immediately to ensure the best chance for survival.

While waiting for EMTs to arrive, Odlin-Platz said anyone helping an overdose victim should try to clear the victim’s breathing passages and turn them on their side, with their knees bent and head on their arm. This can prevent an overdose victim from choking on their own vomit.

Quick, professional medical care is also needed because Narcan can completely revive an overdose victim, and withdrawal symptoms can set in immediately.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a reversal where a person remembers what happened,” Odlin-Platz said. “The desire to use again is huge.”

Fire Department Lt. John Kooistra and firefighters Evan Kleene and Ned Doughty preceded Odlin-Platz with instructions for hands-on CPR techniques, and stemming and stopping severe injuries that could lead to blood loss.

Most attendees took turns compressing the chests of mannequins brought by the Fire Department, listening for a clicking sound that indicated they were using enough pressure.

CPR can lead to injuries in and of itself, but given that a trauma victim is facing life or death, Doughty said the risk pales in comparison.

“If you do not hear a pop, if you are not breaking their ribs, you are not doing it right,” he said.

The warnings and lessons, including how to use tourniquets, were graphic, but the cheer and support in the gathering were gratifying to Liz Leuthner, who coordinates HopeGateWay activities and classes.

“What we learn when we enter recovery is to think about other people,” said Leuthner, who stopped drinking five years ago. “At the end of addiction, it is never really fun or funny.”

City Substance Use Prevention Coordinator Bridget Rauscher said the training was a necessary step forward.

“We got tired of talking and decided we were ready for some action,” she said.

Narcan is not yet available in stores, although the Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Paul LePage to allow its sale. The Maine Board of Pharmacy must now set up a procedure to carry out the law.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Justin Taylor and John Small learn CPR techniques June 22 at HopeGateWay on Forest Avenue in Portland. About 100 people attended a community dinner and instruction on CPR and Narcan administration.

Moira Hoff receives an inhaler of Narcan from Needle Exchange volunteer Hilary Esslinger June 22 at HopeGateWay in Portland.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.