Narcan offers drug users a chance at long-term recovery
In this second installation of a three-part series, victims of drug abuse discuss the antidote's critical role in recovery
By Jessica Trufant
The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.
SCITUATE, Mass. — Kristen Scully said she had sent her son to live with his grandparents, was evicted from her apartment and was using heroin several times a day to cope with how bad her life had gotten.
And then she overdosed twice, just a few weeks apart.
Scully said the overdose-reversing drug Narcan saved her and helped her take control of her life.
"I started AA, met a community of people in recovery and ended up at South Shore Peer Recovery in Scituate," Scully, 41, of Hull, said. "I have my son back in my life now, and every day my life is getting better and better."
She will celebrate two years sober from drugs and alcohol on Nov. 28.
Across the South Shore, hundreds of people have been given a chance to seek recovery from opioid addiction thanks to naloxone, which is often referred to by the brand name Narcan. Now carried by police officers, firefighters, addicts and others, Narcan is the first line of defense against overdoses.
The Quincy Police Department created a model for the entire country when, 10 years ago, all officers started carrying naloxone, which is commonly administered through a nasal spray by first responders. In the last decade, officers have saved hundreds of lives by administering the opioid antidote in parking lots, apartment buildings and even inside a police station.
'I didn't care if I lived or died'
Scully said the day of her second overdose had started badly. She was using heroin more often than usual and bouncing around from one unstable living situation to another. She was at an acquaintance's house when she got sick, and was taken to South Shore Hospital, where she overdosed and received Narcan.
"I kind of knew (an overdose) was going to happen, and maybe that was my goal. I didn't care if I lived or died," said Scully, who is in the process of becoming a recovery coach for those struggling with addiction. "I knew the drugs on the street were so dangerous, but I had no desire to live. I had a beautiful son, and even he wasn't going to stop me."
Scully ended up at Pembroke Hospital, a behavioral health facility, which started her on her road to sobriety. She now volunteers at South Shore Peer Recovery, has her 15-year-old son and a 5-year-old stepdaughter in her life and lives with her boyfriend, who is also in long-term recovery.
Scully knows none of this would be possible if Narcan hadn't been available when she needed it most, and she is ready to step in and give someone else the same second chance.
"I carry Narcan in my car, in my house. I have people around me who are still active users, so it's something I'm very proactive about," she said. "My life would not be what it is without Narcan and recovery. It's not perfect, but it's 100 times better."
A chance to recover
Annmarie Galvin, founder of Scituate Families, Adolescents and Communities Together against Substances, said making Narcan available and following up to offer treatment to those who overdosed has saved countless lives and given people a chance to seek recovery.
"There's a saying, 'You can't recover if you're dead,' and it's a harsh saying but it's really true," Galvin said. "You can't abuse Narcan and you can't misuse Narcan. Having Narcan available doesn't make people continue using or use more. It's just a chance at treatment and recovery."
Galvin said Massachusetts has been on the front line of innovative programs that get Narcan into the hands of people who need it, such as friends and relatives of opioid users. That has become more important as powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have become more prevalent.
"Certainly not everyone with opioid addiction has had an overdose, but they are still always at risk, and anyone in active use should have Narcan," she said.
Police departments, hospitals and outreach organizations throughout the state have launched programs that ensure that people who suffer an overdose are connected with resources and the opportunity to get treatment.
In Scituate, for example, a police officer and a recovery coach from a treatment center visit the home of an overdose victim within 24 to 48 hours to offer treatment resources for the victim and any family members. Galvin said as many as 80 percent of victims accept the offer for help and decide to enter treatment.
"There is a window of opportunity after an almost-fatal event, and the sooner you can offer a referral to treatment, the better," she said. People in active addiction often don't know there are treatment options that fit their situation, such as not having insurance or needing to be home to care for their children, she said.
Galvin said those who turn down the treatment don't necessarily do so because they want to resume drug use.
"They're often physically sick and have situations they need to deal with," she said. "Nobody wants to be addicted to drugs. It's a miserable life."
'It clearly works'
Derek Quirke has been one of those recovery coaches trying to connect with overdose victims and help them get treatment. Now the owner of Revelations Recovery, a sober home in Kingston, Quirke said he suffered at least three overdoses that required Narcan and knows first-hand the importance of the drug.
"I am a product of Narcan. If it wasn't available, I wouldn't be on the phone with you, and I've had to Narcan people, both while I was in active addiction and in recovery," said Quirke, 40, who has been in recovery for five years. "At our sober home, we have Narcan all over the house. Residents know where they are at all times, and of the three overdoses we've had in two years, everyone has survived. It clearly works and saves lives."
Through High Point Treatment Center's ARCH Program and the Plymouth County Outreach Project, Quirke said he spent much of his early days as a recovery coach in hospitals and doing home visits for people who had recently overdosed. He said being able to empathize as a recovering addict himself was key to getting people to take the next step toward getting treatment.
"Most importantly, the connection has to be made for individuals to truly start to open up," he said. "You can literally get someone from wanting to leave the hospital after an overdose to agreeing to go into detox by making the connection."
Lucky to be alive
Many who are revived with Narcan don't immediately go into treatment.
Josh Orleans had been suffering from drug addiction for several years when on a fall night in 2017 he bought a bag of cocaine knowing that his girlfriend would be out of the house. What Orleans didn't know was that the cocaine was laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is about 50 times more potent than heroin.
"I did a little bit and the next thing I knew I was waking up in an ambulance," Orleans, 35, of Scituate, said.
Orleans said his girlfriend came home and found him blue in the face and making a gurgling sound that some experts refer to as the "death rattle." His girlfriend called 911. It took four doses of Narcan to reverse the overdose, Orleans said.
"After that, it was pretty much a wake-up call," he said. "I came out of it and lived through that, which I am incredibly grateful for."
Orleans said surviving the overdose was strange because, in a way, it affected his girlfriend more than it affected him.
"She says, 'You didn't experience it. You weren't there,'" Orleans said. "It's not like I had a gun to my head knowing my life was on the line, but looking back, I feel so lucky I'm alive."
In took several months before Orleans got into treatment. He is now in long-term recovery.
Orleans said he still keeps Narcan at his house because he understands that substance abuse disorder is a chronic condition that could return at any time if he doesn't continue working at recovery.
"In the beginning of recovery, having Narcan feels a little bit like you're betting against yourself, but once you realize that this is a sickness, you know that part of the disease is that you can relapse and you need to be prepared," Orleans said. "You need to have Narcan because you don't know when it could be back, and you have to see your illness that way."
About this series:
A decade ago, with overdose cases involving heroin and various synthetic opioids on the rise in Quincy, Detective Lt. Patrick Glynn and other city leaders spearheaded a move to make the Quincy Police Department the first department in the country to equip all officers with Narcan, a nasally administered drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. A decade later, what became known as the Quincy Model has been replicated nationwide. This three-day series looks at how the Quincy Police Department's program continues to save and change lives.
(c)2020 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.