Bemidji State University community works to prevent possible drug deaths

a box of narcan on display
Bemidji State University recently held an on-campus Narcan training event. It was sponsored by student and community organizations. Attendees learned how to administer Narcan to someone experiencing opioid overdose.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

At a Narcan workshop at Bemidji State University presenter Margo Giese demonstrated how to administer the life-saving nasal spray, also known as naloxone, to an overdose victim. 

“If you find someone unresponsive, you can’t wake them up, keep them awake,” Giese said Narcan in hand. “You’re going to want to push their head back, push this up their nose, push the plunger all the way in, if you’re strong enough to, and you can, roll the person on their side.” 

Giese works as a health educator with the Rural Aids Action Network, or RAAN. She said the spread of disease and overdoses caused by drug use are intrinsically connected. 

“We started with HIV-AIDS, connecting people in rural communities with health care, and getting them taken care of,” Giese said. “And then by looking into that underlying root cause of it, we found out that injection drug users are primarily the ones that are infected and how do we take care of that population in a better way?" 

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BSU health education coordinator Jay Passa organized this event. He said the effects of the opioid epidemic are evident on campus.  

“We know that we’ve lost at least two prior BSU students who were in recovery later relapsed and passed from an overdose,” he said. 

Passa wants to raise awareness about the dangers of counterfeit pills. Known as press pills, they oftentimes look identical to their legitimate counterparts.  

“Press pills are very common in our community. The fact that many of the press pill drugs contain fentanyl, they’re laced with fentanyl, which is a very small amount can be lethal,” Passa said.  

a woman demonstrates how to use a spray
Rural Aids Action Network health educator Margo Giese demonstrates how to use Narcan nasal spray. During her presentation she also showed the audience how to inject Narcan.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

According to the website — a Minneapolis-based website created to educate people about the dangers of synthetic drugs — as many as “Six in 10 counterfeit pills” contain fentanyl. The site warns a lethal dose of fentanyl can be as small as three grains of salt. 

More troubling is what’s called the chocolate chip cookie effect used to describe the uneven distribution of drug ingredients in a single batch of product. This means that much as a chocolate chip cookie may contain only a few morsels or a large amount of chocolate users can never be certain about the amount of a drug they are ingesting. That’s why some people who use the same drug together can be fine while others overdose.    

Dangerous addition

One newcomer to the illegal drug landscape is called tranq. It is a combination of fentanyl and xylazine — an animal sedative. But unlike fentanyl, xylazine does not respond to Narcan because it is not an opioid. 

RAAN’s Giese said that is a big problem. 

“Since xylazine is the new thing that they’re cutting into the supply. It’s more likely found in fentanyl,” she said. “Because in the Minnesota data anyway, 100 percent of the xylazine related overdose deaths, the toxicology report found that there was also fentanyl present.”

Giese said RAAN shies away from using the word overdose. 

“We like to call it a breathing emergency, because more than likely, the person that took the drugs isn’t taking an amount that they’re not comfortable with,” she said. “It’s something in the drugs that’s causing them to overdose.”

Narcan works by knocking that “something” out of the brain’s receptors so the body can begin breathing again. It comes in two forms, an injectable and a nasal spray.  

The BSU Student Nursing Association helped coordinate the Narcan training.

“Naloxone use is huge in this community,” said Association President Nicole Donley. “And it’s great for our nurses that are trying to stay in a rural area and even go into populated areas to understand the administration of it, how it works, why we need it and we also want to bring it to the community. So, community members have that same education.”

One of the event’s sponsors was the nonprofit Face It Together Bemidji. It focuses on helping community members gain and maintain sobriety. Claire Kirkie, a citizen of the Red Lake Nation, is a peer recovery specialist with the organization.  

She says alcohol, fentanyl and methamphetamine have huge impacts in the area. 

a woman speaks at an event
Nicole Donley is president of the BSU Student Nursing Association. She said the training is great for student nurses so they understand the administration of Narcan, how it works and why it’s needed.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

“It’s not only affecting our communities but affecting the surrounding reservations,” she said. “We all have had or known someone who has been affected by addiction. And the harsh reality is that our people are dying.”

 Kirkie had a message for critics who say this kind of training only enables addicts. 

“You may see it as enabling, but I see it [as] trying to keep another relative sober until they’re ready to make the change,” she said. 

Anyone in Bemidji who needs Narcan or other resources including help with sobriety is encouraged to contact Face It Together Bemidji. 

RAAN also offers free Narcan at any of its five statewide offices. It also offers many other services including drug test strips, disease testing and clean needles. 

Giese said she wants people to take away a greater sense of understanding from her presentation.  

“I hope they come out of this room with a little more empathy for people who use drugs,” she said. “Treating people with dignity and respect and compassion will have a major effect on them. And I hope that people can recognize that.”