Overdoses killed loved ones. Now, volunteers learn a remedy: Narcan

Examples of opiates
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek brought examples of the different forms of opiates to show the Senate Committee on Health, Human Services and Housing members during a hearing on Monday, March 10, 2014. Here, a deputy holds the display.
Jon Collins / MPR News, File

The meeting was held in a nondescript room at Colonial Church in Edina. Thirteen people sat around circular tables, nibbling home-baked cookies and pizza from Davanni's.

They all had a powerful reason to be there. Each of them had lost a loved one to an opiate overdose. They'd come to learn how to administer a drug that can stop an overdose from taking a life.

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The group, mostly made up of mothers, was instrumental in pushing for a new state law that makes it easier for doctors to more widely prescribe a drug called naloxone, or Narcan, that can bring someone back from an opiate overdose. It also allows law enforcement officials to carry and administer the drug and gives limited immunity to people who call 911 to report an overdose.

Wednesday was the first test of the naloxone portion of the new law, which comes in the wake of skyrocketing deaths from opiate overdoses in the state. In just Hennepin County last year, 132 people died of opiate overdoses, a more than 57 percent increase over the year before.

"This is the first training in the state where people can actually leave with a prescription that's not intended to be used on themselves, and it's intended to be used on somebody they come across that needs it," said Lexi Reed Holtum, vice president of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, which pushed for the law.

The loved ones of each of those who had come for the training had died under different circumstances. Some were heroin overdoses. Some were killed by opiate pain pills prescribed by a doctor. Others had combined prescription and street drugs. But they'd all come to agree that naloxone was one way to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Michon Jenkin's grief is fresh. Her daughter Ashley Jenkin-Segal was 29 at this time last year. Her 30th birthday would have been in April.

Michon Jenkin and her daughter Ashley Jenkin-Segal
Michon Jenkin and her daughter Ashley Jenkin-Segal, who died of an overdose last June.
Courtesy of Michon Jenkin

In the final year of her life, Ashley began to pull away from her friends and family. Michon said it was evident that Ashley's relationship with a man who had drug problems had thrown her life into turmoil.

"I spoke to her many times because I could see the decline and the things that were happening in her life from the time she was with him," Michon said. "And she would say to me, 'I'm afraid if I leave that he'll die.'"

On March 27, 2013, Michon received a phone call while she was in Florida. It was Ashley's boyfriend. She was overdosing but he was afraid to call 911. Instead, Michon's sister called 911 from Florida.

Ashley survived. But Michon's attempts to send her to a treatment program failed.

On June 2, 2013, Michon's husband Robert died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The last time Michon saw Ashley was after the funeral, as she placed flowers into the water near their house in New Jersey while praying for Robert.

Ashley overdosed from a lethal mixture of oxycontin and Xanax on June 22. The drugs had come from the boyfriend, Michon says, who had been legally prescribed them because he had a long-time back injury.

"I've never met him," Jenkin said of the boyfriend, now serving time in prison on unrelated charges. "I do know that when Ashley overdosed that he was afraid of calling 911 because he was in trouble -- he was on probation and he had upcoming court dates."

Ashley had already been dead for at least four hours by the time he called 911.

"There are not words to describe the sadness and the pain of losing a child," Michon said. "And it completely has overshadowed everything in my life. It's indescribable."

Ashley's death sent Michon into shock. But it was at a grief support group that she met Judy Rummler, president of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation. She learned about naloxone, and was soon knocking on her lawmakers' doors, pushing for the passage of Steve's Law with other mothers.

"Ashley was very driven and she always spoke up for what she believed in. She was about doing the right thing and helping others, and I know that my strength is coming from her," Michon said. "I know this is exactly what she'd want me to do, it's exactly what she'd be doing herself."

The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton in May.

For the last few months, the foundation has been planning how to implement Steve's Law. They've been working with county and law enforcement officials across the state to make sure more naloxone is available. Wednesday's training of how to use naloxone was the first of what the advocates hope will be many trainings across the state in the coming months.

Ian Noire and a colleague led Wednesday's training. He's been training people in how to administer naloxone for seven years. Before the law changed, he said it was hard to find doctors willing to risk the liability of prescribing naloxone, even though the drug doesn't have any effect on someone who doesn't have opiates in their system. That limited naloxone's availability, he said.

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Before Steve's Law, prescriptions had to be made directly from a physician to a patient for their own use. Now naloxone can be prescribed to public health workers or family members of opiate users.

"Even families having it is a big deal, so that if someone does use alone in their home and mom and dad goes to check on them, and they think they're not just high, but overdosing, they can give them [naloxone]," Noire said. "Ultimately the biggest thing is saving people's lives."

Noire and a colleague walked the group through how to identify an overdose, how to perform rescue breathing and how inject the naloxone into an overdose victim.

They explained how naloxone can seem to bring people back to life by temporarily blocking opiates and the respiratory shut-down an overdose can cause. Many overdose victims gasp when they suck in their first breath after receiving a dose of naloxone.

In the end, the participants practiced filling a syringe with naloxone and injected the sharp needles into the flesh of an orange. Each person who went through the training was eligible to walk out with a prescription for naloxone.

Michon said the training made her thinking of what Ashley went through. At one point, she asked Noire whether naloxone would be effective if the overdose victim had mixed drugs like oxycontin and Xanax.

"I just wondered had this been administered to her, would it have made a difference, and obviously it would have," Michon said of the anti-overdose drug. "That was a little bittersweet knowing that it would have made a difference but it will for somebody else, and that's a blessing too."