Overdose deaths in the United States have more than doubled since 1999, outpacing automobile accidents as the leading cause of injury in 35 states, including New York. A nationwide spike in the number of deaths from opioid drugs has been followed by a push for increased availability of the overdose antidote naloxone.
"If you hear the term ‘heroin addict,’ you think of somebody, you know, some derelict living on the streets and you know, that’s not really accurate anymore," said Joan Hessenauer. She lost her son, Jimmy Hissey, to a heroin overdose in May of 2014. Jimmy struggled with addiction for more than 10 years. Since his death, Hessenauer created a website to help other families dealing with addiction.
"There’s kids who have gone over and served our country and then come back and overdosed, there’s kids in high school, and they aren’t bad kids. They’re athletes, they’re smart kids, and they think that if you don’t think it can happen to you then you’re not really being realistic," said Hessenauer.
That’s why Hessenauer wants more people to be trained in how to administer naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan. The medication can reverse an opioid overdose—whether from heroin or a prescription painkiller.
Although it was too late to save her son, Hessenauer got naloxone training at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s recovery program run by Doctor Gloria Baciewicz. URMC is one of more than 270 sites in the state that offer the service.
"When you think about it, it’s one of the few really perfect (almost perfect) antidotes that we have. It gets the dangerous opioids off the opiate receptors, and it has very few side effects. It’s really a wonderful medication that saves lives," Baciewicz said.
New York State lawmakers agree and have made the drug subsidized and readily available to every New Yorker. The state has the largest number of programs in the country and “Good Samaritan” laws protect a person from drug prosecution if they help someone during an overdose.
Daniel Raymond is the policy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition—a national advocacy group. He sees New York State as one of the states taking the lead in the proliferation of the medication. "The question is no longer whether naloxone is part of the solution, but how to make it as widely available as possible," said Raymond.
In the state’s most recent budget dedicated $272,000 to training school nurses in how to administer the overdose treatment. The Harm Reduction Coalition is also working with the state prison system to get former inmates trained in naloxone.
Could these efforts be paying off? A report last month by the advocacy group Trust for America’s Health implies it is. The report ranks New York’s rate of overdose deaths eighth lowest in the nation and links the rate to access to naloxone.
Law enforcement and first responders across the state carry naloxone. Captain Michael Fowler of the Monroe County Sheriff’s office testified in front of the State Senate Task Force that his officers reversed six overdoses within the first months of a naloxone program they began in December 2014.
"Well, it’s certainly positive for that family, for that individual, and for those first responders, but it’s not the solution. What we’re finding more and more is that those persons that are addicted (those users) will continue to use, and they will seek a higher high," Fowler told the State Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Abuse.
For Hessenauer, who’s still actively grieving the loss of her son, naloxone can give hope to other families struggling with addiction. She knows it's not a cure to the heroin addiction problem, "You can give somebody the chance to make a different decision, I think it helps a parent or a friend or a spouse to feel less helpless because it’s a very helpless feeling to love someone who is addicted to heroin."