On June 11, when a local police sergeant responded to an emergency call at a Georgia home, he found an unconscious 24-year-old woman suffering a seizure. She had overdosed on opioids, a powerful class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and illegal substances like heroin.
Holly Springs Police Department Sergeant Nathan Ernst was the first officer to arrive on scene, beating the EMTs. In front of two helpless family members, he administered a medication called naloxone into the woman’s nostril.
Naloxone is sprayed into the nose or injected into the body to counteract the effects of an opioid overdose.
During such an overdose, too many opioids attach to the brain’s opioid receptors, slowing and eventually stopping breathing. Naloxone knocks the opioids away from the receptors long enough to restore normal breathing and reverse the effects of an overdose.
When Ernst administered naloxone to the 24-year-old overdose victim on June 11, it was the first time he had used it. But he saw almost immediately that the antidote had worked.
“Within a minute she stopped seizing and started becoming more stable,” Ernst told Business Insider.
Ernst watched her wake up, and then EMTs took over. The victim was coherent in the ambulance and was in stable condition that day at the hospital.
Whereas a couple weeks ago Ernst would have only been able to perform CPR and wait for paramedics, naloxone allowed him to rapidly revive the victim himself.
Amid a rising availability of cheaper heroin, the number of people with heroin dependence or abuse more than doubled from 2002 to 2012, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report. Naloxone is increasingly used to reverse heroin and opioid overdoses because it can be easily administered by civilians or police officers. It’s also non-addictive, and it won’t affect a person’s body if opioids aren’t in their system.
Naloxone also has a high success rate. In 2010, the police department in Quincy, Massachusetts, became the first in the country requiring officers to carry naloxone. As of this February, the police department has administered naloxone 221 times and reversed 211 overdoses, a 95% success rate, according to New York’s attorney general.
The Holly Springs Police Department, with a jurisdiction encompassing just over five square miles and 10,000 residents, is the first law enforcement agency in Georgia to equip its officers with naloxone. That’s not because Holly Springs has a greater need than the rest of Georgia, “but wherever there are drugs there is always going to be the possibility of someone overdosing, and if we can help that person from overdosing then that’s what it’s all about,” Sherron Conrad, the department’s public information officer, told Business Insider.
Ernst and his fellow officers were given a four-hour training course to administer the overdose antidote just six days before he saved the 24-year-old victim’s life, making him the first police officer in the state to do so.
“I thought that it was fortunate that we were able to have that stuff on board, that we could go ahead and administer it right away and have good results with it,” Ernst said.
Each officer carries the naloxone (brand name: Narcan) in a $US25 kit inside their vehicle, according to Conrad. Each kit contains a naloxone vial, a syringe for injection, and a nasal applicator for spraying the naloxone into a nostril, an alternative to the syringe. Although each kit can only be used to save one life, they include enough naloxone for police officers to spray a second dose in the victim’s other nostril if there is a concern that the first dose wasn’t effective.
The push for equipping Holly Springs police officers with naloxone was spearheaded by a former lieutenant whose daughter died from a methamphetamine overdose in 2013, according to WGCL-TV Atlanta. The department hopes more lives can be saved thanks to a new law Georgia enacted in April that protects people seeking medical assistance for drug overdoses from certain arrests, charges, or prosecutions.
Naloxone is “simple to administer,” Ernst said. He hopes other law enforcement agencies in the state begin using it. “I just really feel that it benefits everybody and every agency should be able to carry this type of tool with them to help save lives.”
Georgia is now one of only 18 states where the officers of at least one law enforcement agency carry naloxone.
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