Training arms police with opioid antidote

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Southgate — Several dozen Michigan State Police troopers and officers from police departments in Wayne County are now equipped to save lives after Tuesday morning training in how to dispense the opioid antidote naloxone.

Drug overdoses killed about twice as many people in Michigan in 2014 as car crashes, 1,745 compared to 876. That year, for the first time in the state’s history, more than 1,000 people in Michigan fatally overdosed on heroin or opioids.

In Wayne County, exclusive of Detroit, 559 people fatally overdosed on heroin or opioids from 2010 to 2014. Counting the state’s largest city, that five-year total jumps to 838.

Enter the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, with 2,500 naloxone kits to distribute and a two-hour training program on how to use the antidote effectively. As officers receive training on how to use them, they’re each given two kits.

Because police prefer to avoid contact with needles, the naloxone comes in the form of a nasal spray, said Darlene Owens, substance use director for the authority.

“Go out there and save lives,” Owens said.

Dr. Carmen McIntyre, chief medical officer for the authority, led the session, which was heavily attended by Michigan State Police.

“When Wayne County approached us and made the training available, but also the medication, we jumped at it,” said Lt. Mike Shaw.

There are several jurisdictions in Metro Detroit where state police are first responders, Shaw said, including Royal Oak and Holly townships in Oakland County and Ray and Armada townships in Macomb County.

McIntyre began by explaining how opioid addiction works: opioids increase the release of dopamine beyond normal levels, which brings a high, a feeling of euphoria.

Opioid users continue chasing that euphoria, but find it difficult to get dopamine levels back that high. So they start using more of the drug. But the body builds a tolerance to it. What may start as a $5 a day habit can become much worse as users chase that high.

When their intoxication is too severe, the drug clings to the brain’s receptors that control breathing. Unlike a cocaine overdose, which might cause a heart attack, heroin overdoses just stop breathing. Prolonged oxygen loss can do permanent damage to the brain, the heart, or other organs. It can also result in death.

Naloxone reverses that process and allows the user to breathe again. The user springs back to life, McIntyre said, not unlike Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction. (It takes longer, though, 3-5 minutes, McIntyre said.) What returns is a user who is no longer high, but is typically upset, having lost their reward for doing the drug.

McIntyre recommended officers call for emergency help prior to dispensing the drug, as a re-occurrence of an overdose is possible if what the user took outweighs the antidote, which wears off after 30 to 90 minutes.

What doesn’t work in stopping opioid overdoses, McIntyre explained, are cold showers, cocaine, or slapping, punching or burning the person suffering one.

“None of that gets opioids off the brain’s receptors,” McIntyre said.

If applied to someone who is drunk, high on another drug, or sober, naloxone will have no effect, positive or negative, McIntyre said.

After training, each officer left with a certificate and two naloxone kits. Since those kits contain two nasal spray kits each, and naloxone dispensers are told to use half of each spray kit on each nostril, each officer now has the training and the tools to save up to four lives.

To track the effectiveness of its effort, the authority asks the officers who’ve received kits to fill out reports after using them. Those are due on the fifth of each month.

If the authority has the success its Oakland County counterpart has, the life-saving potential is tremendous. Since the start of 2015, Farmington Hills firefighters and police officers have saved 17 people who would’ve overdosed on opioids.

The police department just started carrying the antidote in February and already has saved two lives, chief Chuck Nebus told The News.

“When you get that opportunity to save a life, you can’t pass it up,” Nebus said.