GILBERT — President Barack Obama made his way to Charleston on October 28 to join the discussion of the prescription pain pill epidemic that is facing our country and more specifically West Virginia.
West Virginia has one of the highest overdose statistics in the country and it comes as no shock to those who live in the coalfields, that the problem is one that has been going on for far too long. Craig Blankenship, Director at Elite Care Ambulance Services says that as an EMT, you see first hand just how much drugs affect our small community.
“Drug overdoses make up a significant part of our call volume,” said Blankenship.
There were many topics discussed in the forum and many proposed solutions to help move the state and the country toward a more proactive approach rather than the reactive one that has proved to not be effective.
One of those solutions that was talked about was to make the drug Narcan more accessible to every first responder from police officers, fire departments and all ambulance services as well as the public. Narcan is an opiate channel blocker that can pull someone out of of overdose.
“I support Narcan. I know it will save many lives however, I do understand how its availability can cause mixed emotions” said Angie Sparks, assistant of the STOP Coalition. “I can definitely see how loved ones would be afraid it may give an addict a false sense of security but I also know if something was available that could save a life we would all want to know how to administer it.”
Adam Brewster, an EMT of seven years who now works at Elite Care Ambulance Services says that making the drug available to the general public is a solution that he supports.
“I believe it should be available to the public,” said Brewster. “I also believe that if we do make it available to the public, that there should be laws and regulations in place that require whoever administered the drug to call 911 afterwards.”
While Brewster believes making the drug public could be the answer, not everyone in the medical field feels that way.
Craig Blankenship, Director at Elite Care Ambulance Service says that the general public needs to have a much better understanding of the drug before everyone starts requesting that it be given to the public. As of now, laws state that it is mandatory for every ambulance to carry Narcan but Blankenship says that understanding the drug, how to administer is properly and knowing how it works on someone is paramount to being able to administer the overdose drug.
“We administer it pretty frequently. It is the fourth most used drug in the state and yes, it does work but it can also be dangerous if administered wrongly,” said Blankenship. “Narcan comes prepackaged in 2 milligram doses. We are only suppose to administer half of a milligram at a time because if you administer too much to someone who is overdosing, not only will it bring them out of an overdose but it can also bring about severe withdrawal symptoms such as seizures. I don’t feel like it would be safe for the general public that has no knowledge of this to be able to have access to it.”
While Narcan may sound like a miracle drug with the ability to essentially bring someone back to life, there are still procedures to follow after administering the drug. The drug will only last in a human body for 34 to 81 minutes which gives EMS personnel enough time to rush a patient to a hospital where patients are treated for the overdose that they are about to slip back into. Yes, while Narcan can sober a patient up in an instant, it is only temporary and the patient is still technically overdosing and needs to be treated at a hospital.
“When someone begins overdosing, the first thing that happens is they go into respiratory arrest and their breaths become fewer and more shallow. Then, the heart rate will begin to drop followed by a drop in blood pressure and then that is when the patient can begin to go into organ failure. Narcan does not prevent any of these things from happening,” said Blankenship. “Narcan will sober the patient up long enough to get them to a hospital and it also only works on a drug overdose from opiates. Narcan is not a miracle drug. When patients are given the drug, they are usually combative once responsive due to confusion which puts first responders in dangerous situations.”
While the discussion of making Narcan available to the public is definitely one that is in the making, Blankenship says that he hopes the high demand for the drug doesn’t mean another huge increase in price.
“When we began using Narcan, the price was twenty dollars per dose and just in the last year as the drug becomes more popular and more in demand, the price has increased to approximately fifty dollars per dose,” said Blankenship. “I am worried that the rapid increase that comes with making the drug more available will negatively impact first responders’ ability to have the drug on hand. I don’t think Narcan is the solution to drug overdoses. If anything, I think we will see an increase in them because people will be misusing the drug.
According to Blankenship, the only way to combat the drug problem is through prevention.
“Prevention is the most effective action we can take against drugs in our communities,” said Blankenship. “Public awareness and especially awareness with our youth is essential. I think alot of times when we do drug campaigns in schools, we sugarcoat the topic for kids but these kids need to know and see why we tell them to not to drugs.”
Prevention is something that Angie Sparts at the STOP Coalition knows all too well. The STOP Coalition is a family-focused, community-based organization that is committed to a high quality of life, free of the impact of substance abuse and its adverse effects through service and mobilization of our communities. The organization is based in the heart of Gilbert where in 2001, inspired The Guardian to publish a story entitled, “Hillbilly heroin: the painkiller abuse wrecking lives in West Virginia.
Just ten years earlier, STOP was formed by a group of citizens who were concerned with the growing drug problem. Now, the STOP Coalition is fighting the battle of drugs on the front lines with programs in place within Mingo County Schools. By incorporating prevention into the programs of existing resources such as after-school programs and summer day camps, STOP maximizes the reach of both organizations.
Sparks, who is the Assistant Director at STOP, takes every opportunity that she can to teach Mingo County children about saying no to drugs. During career day at Gilbert Elementary School, Sparks passed out bracelets to students while telling them to say no to drugs and explaining why.
The STOP Coalition has also taken an approach to help those who were not as lucky to say no drugs by opening Crossroads for women in Gilbert. Crossroads Recovery Home for women is dedicated to providing a home for women who are recovering from substance abuse. It is during their stay at Crossroads that the women are given tools to learn how to live a healthy and sober lifestyle. It is this type of treatment that President Barack Obama mentioned in the forum in October.
“I do feel that in many cases treatment is what is needed,” said Sparks. “I have learned that recovery does not come until the person is ready to give in and realize that if they want it, it’s going to be a lot of hard work. With that being said, if we can get them to a treatment facility, under whatever circumstances, even by court order, we often see those walls come down and it’s like a light bulb comes on. It is very important to work with everyone involved in each specific case: the court system, probation, CPS, whoever it takes to make the best possible plan for that individual.”
Carrie Dean, a Gilbert resident and student at Marshall University who is currently working to complete a doctorate of Psychology program was invited to attend the forum in Charleston where President Obama spoke on the issue. Dean says that as a future psychologist, she understands the need for treatment facilities.
“Right now, there are no significant treatment facilities in the state of West Virginia,” said Dean. “Nine times out of ten you have to go out of state and no one has the money for that. We need federal funding to make that happen because you cannot arrest your way out of addiction. When drug addicts go to jail, the recidivism rate for them is much higher than if they undergo treatment.”
For Dean, another topic that was discussed in the forum was especially appealing and that was the Handle with Care program that is being implemented in Kanawha County.
“When I heard them talk about the Handle with Care program, I immediately fell in love with that initiative,” said Dean.
The Handle with Care program is a type of alert system within the schools that allow teachers and staff to be alerted when there has been an instance where police officers may have had to come to the home. The program is geared towards making sure teachers and staff are aware of that outside issues a student may be facing. When Obama heard of the program, he mentioned that it would be worthwhile looking into making the program a nationwide program.
Andrea Mounts, school counselor at Gilbert Elementary School says that the Handle with Care program is a great idea for schools, staff and students.
“Being from a small community has its advantages in that we are pretty aware of those children and families who could use extra support or resources,” said Mounts. “Our schools recently collaborated with the STOP Coalition and local churches to launch the “Backpack Blessings” food initiative. This program provides non-perishable food to children over the weekend so they don’t go hungry. Our Parent Resource Center located at the Mingo County Central Office has been wonderful to provide clothing, hygiene products, and school supplies to students in need. We also have partnerships with Logan-Mingo Mental Health and NECCO to provide services to children who may need more in-depth care in those areas.”
The new reality for teachers and school staff is that they are no longer just an educator but are also a sort of provider to their students. Many teachers take time to make sure every student has clean clothes, has brushed their teeth and is ready for the day. More often than not, teachers end up going into their own pockets to ensure that their students have everything they need.
“Working directly with children in our schools, I see first hand the effects drug addition can have on families. I see children go without basic needs – food, clothing, and shelter,” said Mounts. “We have a high percentage of children being raised by grandparents and I’m sure there is a correlation between drug abuse with many of those cases. I also see children being born addicted to drugs causing developmental delays and learning disabilities to surface when they become school age. These are issues that will follow them for the majority of their lives.”
As President Obama closed the forum in October, there was a sense of change, understanding and desire to make a difference from everyone who spoke.
“When I left that forum, I felt hopeful,” said Dean. “Just that the President took time to come to West Virginia and speak on the issue really was inspiring and hopeful. I know there was alot of negativity around his visit because of the coal industry but there is a time and a place for everything and that day, it was all about fighting drug abuse. Being from southern West Virginia, it is hard to meet anyone that has not been affected by this epidemic. It has definitely affected me on a personal level with family member and loved ones and that is why we can’t give up.”
While it is certain that the drug epidemic is one that is complicated and aggressive, there is hope in the faces of southern West Virginia. There is hope in the faces of the students working toward making a difference, the organizations striving to bring awareness, the school staff members who go out of their way to help their students, the EMT’s who dedicate their lives to saving others and the community members who refuse to give up.
Madalin Sammons is a reporter for the Gilbert Times. Madalin can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 304-664-8225.