PHOENIX – Clergy and faith leaders throughout Phoenix are taking an active role in Arizona’s battle against opioid addiction by learning how to administer a life-saving medication properly.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office hosted a training session Thursday, including safety information and instructions on how to give somebody in crisis naloxone, which you might know better by its brand name – Narcan.
“The training is part of a toolkit created by the Attorney General’s Office to help churches and places of worship better serve the needs of their parishioners who are battling opioid addiction,” according to a news release from the office.
John Stevens, who works in the AG’s Office, trains first responders in the proper use of Narcan.
One of the most important things he tells people is to exercise caution because the opioids on the street – fentanyl and carfentanil, for example – are extremely potent.
“I’m teaching cops, if you see a powder in a car and you don’t know what it is, assume it will kill you,” he said. “It will kill you dead.”
He mentioned an incident May 2017 when an Ohio police officer accidentally overdosed after merely brushing powder off his shirt. It took four doses of Narcan to save him.
“It’s no secret that there’s an opioid crisis in this country,” Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whose office helped orchestrate the move, said that day. “We know that every single day, approximately 90 Americans are dying from drug overdoses.”
Narcan has been around since the ‘60s, and it is known to be safe and effective.
“One of the most significant calls those of us who have been doing this for a long time know of, that is the call of the overdose,” Bryan Jeffries, president of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, said during the CVS news conference. “For 30 years, we’ve carried this drug … in our med boxes, readily available. We have saved thousands upon thousands of lives as a result of administering it and bringing people back from these overdoses.”
Time is of the essence in emergency situations, which is just one reason first responders support making Narcan available without a prescription.
“I can tell you that there are times, unfortunately, where, as first responders, we can’t always be there quick enough to make a difference,” he said. “Having this drug in the hands of family members and other people in the community can really make the difference and probably save thousands upon thousands of lives.”
Now many clergy and faith leaders have it on hand and know how to use it.
"Naloxone is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose. It is an opioid antagonist -- meaning that it binds to opioid receptors and can reverse and block the effects of other opioids," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Naloxone is an extremely safe medication that only has a noticeable effect in people with opioids in their systems."
It works by reversing that respiratory depression caused by an overdose. The type of drug does not matter; Narcan's mechanism is the same.
“The way the drug works is that imagine that this opioid is a key and it has to go into a lock that is a receptor site in your brain. This drug gets in between the key and the lock and stops it from going inside immediately,” Jeffries explained. “It works very quickly -- in fact, almost instantly -- once it’s administered.”
Thursday’s training event wasn’t just about reacting in a crisis. It was also about learning to recognize the risks for and signs of addiction and taking action to head off an emergency.
Several attendees shared their experiences of dealing with opioid addiction involving both prescription and illicit drugs.
Pastor Aubrey Barnwell talked about his nephew’s addiction to morphine after being shot in a drive-by, as well as his own experience with withdrawal after taking painkillers for TMJ.
“I was taking the painkillers, and I stopped, and I experienced withdrawal – I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I wanted to die. I was in so much pain, and I realized how easy it is to become addicted.
“We tend to think of addiction as something that happens to ‘that guy over there,’ someone living on the street, someone not living a faith-filled life [or] a productive life,” Reverend Tina Marie Rees said. “But that is entirely false. We are all equally at risk for opioid addiction.”
She pointed out that clergy and faith leaders are in a unique position to help.
“Clergy have the ability to go into the homes of those who struggle with mental health, of those who are struggling with chronic illness, of those who have recently lost a job and speak to them about how tempting it can be to use old medication that you have, to ask for meds from a friend, to walk out onto the street and look for sources,” she explained. “If we do not speak boldly about these risk factors, we leave the door open to our congregation to become addicted ….”
"To date, the Attorney General's Office has trained over 300 members of law enforcement on how to administer Narcan, including 'train the trainer' classes, providing critical life-saving training for hundreds of members of law enforcement across the state," according to a news release from the AG's Office.