DENVER -- Drug overdoses fueled by opioid painkillers and heroin kill more people than car crashes in Colorado, but many of those lives could be saved with more access to a powerful overdose antidote.
The FOX31 Denver Problem Solvers and the Harm Reduction Action Center have been investigating the role that naloxone (marcan) has been having in saving lives from overdose across Denver. Both agencies, along with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, are raising awareness about how easy it can be to save a life.
The Harm Reduction Action Center is across the street from the Colorado State Capitol but often seems hidden in plain sight, much like the epidemic its volunteers are busy fighting inside.
“The longer the person isn’t breathing, the more cells are dying,” said Vernon Lewis, the overdose prevention specialist for the Harm Reduction Action Center.
Lewis gives regular leads 10- to 15-minute classes to show people how to administer naloxone and reverse a deadly opioid overdose.
“Three simple letters: BNN. Breathe, Narcan, Nine-One-One,” Lewis said. “These three steps will save someone’s life.”
Those steps have been part of Lewis’ life since he overdosed on some steps outside an apartment complex in Denver six years ago.
“I almost ended my life right here,” Lewis said. “This was a good hiding spot for someone who wanted to get high and get away from everybody, which is why people die because nobody is there for them.”
Lewis said he owes his life to a stranger who started CPR and called paramedics who carried naloxone.
“If you’re one of those people who believe in second chances … here’s a second chance right here on my shoulder,” Lewis said, pointing to the naloxone he carries with him. “It’s that easy.”
Reporter: "How many people have been in and out of this classroom and left with that knowledge?”
Lewis: “This year? Four-hundred or more.”
The Problem Solvers met one of those 400 people on the Cherry Creek bike path below Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue, the epicenter of the heroin epidemic in Colorado.
A man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he took the naloxone training because he was addicted to heroin.
Reporter: "What do you think about naloxone?”
Heroin addict: "Saved my life and it saved my best friend's life as well.”
He said he had also administered it.
"I used it on three separate occasions, saved three different people. Saved their lives," he said.
They are three of the 360 lives saved in the past four years thanks to naloxone training provided by the Harm Reduction Center.
For the past year, the Denver Police Department and the Denver Fire Department have also carried naloxone. Denver police has used it 12 times and Denver Fire has used it 130 times.
In the same time, Denver paramedics used naloxone 930 times.
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"That's just a small fraction of the actual narcotic overdoses that we actually see," Denver paramedics Capt. David Edwards said.
That’s because most overdoses aren’t because of heroin.
“What we're seeing is more prevalent overdosing of pill painkillers, prescribed painkillers,” Edwards said. "Half of our naloxone administrations have happened in a residence, not out on a street."
And that’s not just true in Denver. From 2002 to 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that overdose death rates in Colorado increased in every county except one. The trend is being driven primarily by prescription opioids.
"There's definitely this viewpoint of, well, it's an orange bottle, it's safe,” Jeremiah Lindemann said. “That's not true."
Lindemann lost his brother to oxycontin in 2007. Years later, Lindemann decided to create a different kind of overdose map, which incorporated photos and stories submitted by families like his.
"This is the real face behind those mortality numbers that keep on coming out and unfortunately keep rising," Lindemann said.
Yet as those faces and numbers increase, he said education about naloxone seems to lag behind.
"If I would have known, or my family would have known a little more about it back then, maybe things would have been different,” he said.
"Having naloxone in the hands of either friends or family members or patients who are using prescription opioids appropriately is the next frontier," said Dr. Joshua Blum, a primary care doctor at Denver Health Medical Center. "Anybody really, inadvertently overdosing, including a small child in a home, might be reversed by this."
Blum said that’s why more people need to take the few minutes it takes to educate themselves and pick it up from the pharmacy.
"There's a high that comes with doing something good for someone and saving someone's life," Lewis said.
The Harm Reduction Action Center and the Problem Solvers are working to bring that feeling, and education, to others. They’re starting with the highest profile Coloradan; Hickenlooper has agreed to become the first governor in the country to train how to use naloxone.
He will learn from Lewis on Thursday.
“I’m sure I won’t be the last governor because as more governors hear about what this says, what it does, that you can increase the awareness of how to save lives … why not do it?” Hickenlooper said.
Click this link to learn more about naloxone, including how to find it at a nearby pharmacy.