SALT LAKE CITY — Amy Daeschel was 37 years old when she became an addict. It started when she had 12 surgeries performed on her foot and was given Oxycontin for the pain.
After a year and a half on the painkillers, her doctors cut her off without tapering her off the drugs, she said, leaving her to deal with the horrible withdrawals alone.
She began shooting up heroin shortly after to stave off the withdrawals and because it was cheaper than buying oxycodone illegally. She eventually overdosed.
A man who Daeschel said had been living on the streets saw her overdose and quickly administered naloxone — an opioid-overdose antidote. His quick actions saved her life and gave her a second chance.
“I’m so glad that person was there to be able to bring me back because I get to help people every day get out of this darkness,” she said. “That one person gave me that chance because Utah Naloxone gave that one person a kit.”
Now Daeschel is three years sober and is working on a degree in social work. She works for the very treatment center she went through to support those who are looking for help and said she feels “honored” to be where she is now.
So far, 4,142 Utahns have been saved by nonmedical personnel administering naloxone to someone overdosing thanks to Utah Naloxone’s efforts to expand access to the drug, according to the organization.
Jen Plumb, medical director and co-founder of Utah Naloxone, said she and her brother started the organization in 2015 to expand access to naloxone, as well as educate the public on its use and the importance of having it around.
“There’s so much judgment and stigma and moralizing around people overdosing,” Plumb said. “We don’t do that when people slip and fall on ice; we don’t do that when someone’s in an accident. Things happen, and we want to make sure we don’t have worse outcomes.
“Not only do we get to be part of saving 4,000 people’s lives, but we also get to be part of helping the families who are affected by this,” she said. “It’s pretty humbling.”
Utah Naloxone is a coalition of pharmacists, prescribers, public health workers, recovery advocates, people who have lost someone to an opioid overdose and people who have been saved from overdosing who work together to get naloxone into the community.
Plumb said Utah was fourth highest in the country for opioid overdose deaths in 2014 when the Utah Legislature passed a law allowing medical providers to prescribe naloxone to high risk individuals. However, that wasn’t enough for her, so she pushed for more changes.
Through the efforts of Utah Naloxone and its partners, Utah pharmacies were given the ability to distribute naloxone to Utahns without a prescription in 2016, which expanded access to the life-saving drug. Now, anyone interested in having it on-hand can purchase it from qualified pharmacies, or they can access it through Utah Naloxone, local health departments and fire stations, among others.
According to Plumb, the organization is funded until 2023 through donations, partnerships with the University of Utah and through federal money that is aimed at combating the opioid epidemic.
She said her organization and the health department distributed 37,500 kits each containing two doses in 2019.
Utah Naloxone has also partnered with several law enforcement agencies around Utah, including the Unified Police Department, to set up policies and train before the agencies equip themselves with naloxone kits.
“We partnered with Utah Naloxone several years ago in their plan to get naloxone out to first responders and people who encounter people who are having overdoses before medical arrives,” said Unified Police Lt. Melody Gray. “So at UPD we very often respond to calls of overdoses prior to the fire department or paramedics being able to be there.”
According to Gray, law enforcement officers have saved nearly 441 people from overdosing because they are equipped with naloxone in the form of nasal spray.
Gray said the thousands of reversals “absolutely” can be attributed to naloxone being readily available to both officers and the general public.
Unified police detective Omar Flores has seen officers use naloxone first-hand and has also administered it himself.
He recalled a time when he responded to a call from someone reporting that a family member was likely overdosing in their bathroom because he wasn’t responding to knocks on the door.
Flores was the first officer on scene, so he ran into the house to find out what was happening. The family pointed him to a locked bathroom where they believed their family member was overdosing.
Flores kicked the bathroom door in and found a man who appeared to be dead from an overdose. His partner tossed him naloxone to quickly try to revive the man, and he administered it before beginning chest compressions.
The man regained consciousness just as medical responders began working to revive him. Without the drug and the quick actions of Flores, the man would have died, he said.
“I think naloxone is amazing and is essential to us,” he said. “It’s another tool and resource we have in the field that we can use without any medical training.”
Using and administering naloxone is legal and safe, even if it turns out that the person wasn’t overdosing. It can be given nasally or by injection, and people won’t be charged for administering it or using it.
“People sometimes fear even calling for medical help when (overdoses) happen because they’re so afraid of getting in trouble,” Gray said. “I know in my career, I’ve been aware of people who’ve been left to die because the people that were with them were so afraid of calling because they didn’t want to get in trouble.”
Dani Davidson’s life was saved several times by naloxone. She said paramedics, addicts and others who had access to the drug saved her life because they had access to it.
“If it wasn’t for the fourth or fifth chances I was given with naloxone, then I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Davidson said she grew up in an addicted home and struggled with addiction for 10 years before going into treatment and turning her energy toward helping other addicts overcome their struggles. She now works for the Haven recovery center, which is the same treatment facility she enrolled in to get help with her addiction.
She said access to naloxone really is saving people’s lives because she saw so many people die from overdoses the first eight years she was on the streets because naloxone wasn’t available then.
Davidson said she’s even administered naloxone to people she’s encountered overdosing on the streets and says she always has a supply on her.
“You never know if someone is accidentally overdosing, but that addict is someone’s parent or sister or friend,” she said. “Even if they’re alienated at the time, there are people who care about them and don’t want to see them die.”
Plumb says she hopes her work and the work of community organizations and leaders will help reduce the stigma around addiction and treat having naloxone the same way people treat epipens.
“We’re preventing preventable deaths. There will always unfortunately be deaths, but preventable deaths, I think we all believe, should be prevented,” she said. “There’s no one who’s not been touched by addiction.”
Correction: An earlier version stated incorrectly that Utah Naloxone partners with law enforcement agencies to provide them with naloxone kits. The organization actually helps the agencies as they train and set up their policies before the agencies equip themselves.