State Police save 2 lives using opioid antidote

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

In the four months since the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority began training local law enforcement on the use of the opioid antidote naloxone, two lives have been saved by Michigan State Police troopers.

Dr. Carmen McIntyre, the authority’s chief medical officer, described herself as a "proud teacher" when she watched dash cam video of one of the saves. She saw the trooper examine a man who had passed out andand administer the drug expertly, just as he'd been taught.

But Trooper Ben Sonstrom, 41, who has been an EMS since 1992 and a paramedic since 1995, estimates he's deployed the drug hundreds of times to save lives in the years since. He said the training he received from the authority simply allowed him to deploy the drug in his job as a trooper.

What Sonstrom saw on a June 16 patrol in southwest Detroit, though, was a first. He'd treated people who had overdosed. He had never seen anyone actually pass out from an overdose, as a man did while walking out of a factory.

"It happened instantly," Sonstrom recalls. "He just fell out."

The gate surrounding the factory was 10 feet high and topped with barbed wire, Sonstrom said. He grabbed his medical bag, which now included the drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, and ran around the building until he found an entrance to the gate.

Sonstrom said his years as a paramedic — a certification he has maintained — have taught him how to identify overdose victims. Judging by the man's altered mental state, lack of consciousness, pinpoint pupils and shallow breathing, the trooper could tell the man was having an opioid overdose.

Sonstrom deployed the drug and "instantly, (the man he treated) popped up," McIntyre said.

McIntyre said ff the 2,500 kits the authority bought, it has distributed about 500 to state troopers and police officers in Detroit, Dearborn, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Grosse Pointe, Taylor and to firefighters and first responders in other Wayne County communities.

Lt. Mike Shaw of Michigan State Police said Michigan's opioid epidemic is a concern to the agency. In 2014, the last year for which numbers are available, 1,001 people in Michigan died of opioid overdoses, the first time that number crossed 1,000. Experts say that's almost certainly an undercount.

But, Shaw said, the rollout had to be done right. Simply getting the drug and handing it out wasn't going to work. Training had to be a part of it. The authority provides the training and distributes naloxone kits free of charge.

"We looked at that as a great opportunity," Shaw said. "Sometimes, we're the first responders and might arrive even before EMS."

McIntyre said naloxone kits keep first responders in law enforcement from feeling "helpless" when they serve someone in the throes of an overdose.

When officers who've been trained deploy the drug, the authority asks that they document its use in a form due on the fifth of each month. When they run out of the drug, the authority will replace it free of charge, McIntyre said.