Police Officer Joshua Smith was on his usual shift on May 18 when he was called to Homestead Road in Wilmington for an apparent opiate overdose.
When the New Castle County officer arrived at the scene he found a man administering CPR on another man. He told Smith his roommate was a heroin addict and was suffering an overdose.
Smith had been called to several overdose scenes during his five years as an officer, and was trained to perform CPR. But this day was different—he had a tool that could save a person’s life faster and more effectively.
Smith grabbed his Narcan kit, comprising of a nasal spray designed to release naloxone, a drug that immediately reverses the chemical in opiates and stops the physical reaction in the body. When the man’s breathing didn’t return to normal Smith administered a dose to the victim’s left nostril and then a second dose to his right nostril.
Smith was able to sustain the victim until medics arrived on the scene – the man eventually regained consciousness and, after receiving further treatment, walked out of an area hospital.
“Myself and my fellow officers go out every day and try to make a difference, and sometimes it means we have to arrest people for things, but sometimes it means you have to help those who need help,” Smith said. “People who are addicted need help. They have a disease, and they need to be put on the right path. If they’re in crises they need us to assist them in that aspect as well.”
Smith, who has worked for New Castle County Police for three years, was the first officer in the county to administer Narcan. Since the success of the first use, Narcan has been administered three more times to save lives—a total of four times within four weeks.
Narcan was introduced to New Castle County Police at the end of April as part of a pilot program with 38 officers trained and equipped to use it. It is the second unit to receive Narcan—Ocean View Police Department received it several months ago and has used it once.
Paramedics in Delaware have been using naloxone since 2013, but it wasn’t until August that Gov. Jack Markell passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, (D-Middletown) that permits officers to carry it.
The department has spent $5,000 for 40 Narcan kits and bag valve masks. The Narcan program is one of many initiatives the New Castle County Police Department is undertaking to tackle what is being called a “heroin epidemic” in the county. Officers also take part in educational forums in schools, the department has a confidential drug drop box at its headquarters and has created a campaign and website, herointrap.com, to educate the public on arrests and overdoses in the county.
Along with the FBI and other police agencies, New Castle County Police also took part in a 9-month long investigation and large crackdown on heroin dealers, arresting 42 people in New Castle County, and seizing more than 157 grams of heroin on May 28.
“I wanted to get out in front of this thing,” said Col. Elmer Setting of the New Castle County Police. “We’re an agency that is honest about heroin, we’re one of the only agencies going out and telling everyone we’re immersed in the heroin epidemic and it’s real.”
The New Castle County Police Department reports that so far in 2015 there have been 43 suspected drug overdoses and 14 deaths.
According to the Delaware Department of Health and Mental Services, in 2014 Delaware had 185 suspected drug overdose deaths for all substances combined—that’s the equivalent of one death about every other day. Death by overdose was more common than traffic deaths that same year. Of those overdoses, 40 were in Kent County, 40 were in Sussex County and 105 were in New Castle County.
Between 2008 and 2013 heroin and opioid pain reliever overdoses increased from 124 to 160, the health department reports.
In order to fight the heroin epidemic, the health department also has asked for additional funding in the state’s budget starting July 1 for addiction services. If the funding is approved, the department will receive $4.45 million in additional funds for detox services, sober living residential programs, a young adult residential treatment program, residential treatment and one-time startup funds.
Since paramedics were given Narcan in 2013, health officials have seen its success and the need for it. In 2013 and 2014, Delaware paramedics administered naloxone 1,244 times, with 668 improvements in individuals who received the drug.
“Now having Narcan more accessible it’s simply going to help save lives, and with (four officers) using it how much more proof do you need?” said Marc Richman, assistant director for community mental health and addiction services for the health department. “Police are often first on the scene and if somebody is unconscious and not breathing and it’s clearly from opiate overdose, for police officers to be trained and making it accessible it gives a person second chance on life.”
Smith said he’s been to several overdose scenes, especially over the past year. Unfortunately, not all the victims survived.
“If the medics weren’t there quickly after they lost consciousness and stopped breathing the chances of them surviving were very low. Once a week I was going to an overdose where the person didn’t survive,” he said. “This Narcan is really going to be a tool we use…it’s going to save a lot of lives.”
Officer Zachary Drake has been a New Castle County Police officer for three years. He administered Narcan to a 43-year-old female from Elkton after suffering an opiate overdose on May 29. Drake said while he was able to perform other measures like CPR before, Narcan is more effective.
“Narcan’s awesome because it takes it the extra step further,” he said. “Now we can actually take action and do more good.”
Saving someone from an overdose gives health officials the chance to provide the person information they need to get into some form of treatment, said Richman and Setting.
“The heroin’s not going away,” Setting said. “The more people you save the more chance you have of them getting in a program and the more chance of recovering.”
Smith said he feels honored to be a part of saving someone’s life. He said he only hopes the victim won’t need to be saved from an overdose again.
“I’m just hoping this incident will be the waking call he needs to realize the dangers of heroin, and maybe he can move forward and put himself on the track of getting treatment and help and utilizing one of the many programs we have to assist people who are addicted to heroin,” he said.
Setting said he’s hopeful for the future of Narcan, and believes all officers on his force will be equipped to save individuals from opiate overdose. “As the Narcan program becomes more popular I think you will see other agencies wanting to be a part,” he said. “I think we can see more people in recovery.”