Amendments to Overdose Law Would Shield EMTs

When Chris O’Brien’s phone rang near 1 a.m., the Audubon man, certified to administer heroin overdose antidote, rushed to Collingswood where a girl he had never met was unresponsive and running out of time.

Days earlier he gave his number to a stranger on a chance she’d reach out for addiction resources. He never thought he’d hear from her. O’Brien didn’t even know her name.

“She called. Her and her friend were high. Her friend was passed out. Not answering,” O’Brien, 35, recalled.

“They wouldn’t call 911.”

The girl, whose name he learned a week later, was among a dozen people he’d passed his number to since taking a Narcan certification course in September.

The Overdose Prevention Act, enacted in 2013, is meant to protect those, like O’Brien, who in good faith help save a life from an overdose.

The law protects health care professions and individuals like O’Brien, allowing them to administer the antidote without criminal or civil liability.

A bill (S2378) on Gov. Christie’s desk amends the act, specifically providing immunity to health care practitioners, including emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

EMTs in Gloucester and Camden counties started carrying Narcan last summer.

Bill S2378 is among a handful of addiction-related bills passed overwhelmingly by the state Senate and Assembly last month. The governor has 45 days from the statehouse votes to sign or veto the proposals.

O’Brien had reached out to a diner waitress and a couple of people at Wawa. He would approach them, then offer resources to get them help.

If they were in serious trouble, they should call, O’Brien told them.

Near 1 a.m. on Jan. 14, O’Brien sped from Audubon to Collingswood, hoping a cop would pull him over and follow him to the girl’s house.

None did.

He hoped the ambulance he called would beat him to the scene. It hadn’t.

O’Brien was on his own, armed only with the small bottle of the clear liquid, a syringe and what he retained from the course.

“She was against the wall. Slumped over,” he recalled.

Camden County police delivered the department’s first life-saving dose of naloxone on Friday.

He made sure she wasn’t choking on her tongue then pricked her finger with the needle. She didn’t flinch.

He plunged the syringe into her arm.

She opened her eyes, waking up angry and immediately experiencing heroin withdrawal, he recounted.

“It’s like being in a car accident. Everything happens so fast,” he said.

O’Brien was shaking from start to finish. But he did it. He saved a stranger’s life.

When the life-and-death crisis was over, he realized he might be in danger. What if the police didn’t believe his story, that he was a stranger who reached out to offer help?

“No matter what you tell people, not everybody is going to believe what you say,” O’Brien worried.

The Overdose Act’s amendments ensure those who are able to help can act quickly, according to Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, the bill’s co-sponsor.

“Measures like these help ensure that potentially life-saving medication can be administered without fear of liability, helping to ensure the maximum number of lives are saved,” Lampitt said.

“Time is of the essence and can mean the difference between whether someone lives or dies.”

Since the state expanded its Narcan program in June, allowing police and first responders to administer the drug, 477 lives were saved in the state.

In the first minutes of 2015, a Camden County Police deployment of the antidote marked the New Year — and the 100th successful use of the medication by police officers in the county since May, the county prosecutor’s office reported.

“Of those 100 reversals, they’re kids from the suburbs,” said Patty DiRenzo, an advocate of addiction services, supporting awareness for Narcan certification among civilians.

She’s been an advocate since her son, Sal Marchese, died of an overdose in 2010.

“That’s 100 kids who haven’t been buried. That’s 100 kids alive because of this law and Narcan,” she added.

Camden County Police reversed 45 overdoses in Camden, the highest number in any town in the tri-county region. Police in Gloucester County’s Monroe Township used it 15 times with positive results, followed by Pine Hill in Camden County at 13.

Of 22 Narcan deployments by police in Burlington County since September, 20 were successful, according to the county prosecutor’s office.

“It’s really important we get police involved in this,” said DiRenzo, who, while serving on the Camden County Addition Task Force, works to lift the stigma that police are arresting Good Samaritans.

In spite of the Overdose Prevention Act and DiRenzo’s efforts, O’Brien was terrified of officers’ questions about his connection to Collingswood girls.

“It’s a normal reaction, but they’re on our side,” DiRenzo assured.

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O’Brien’s September Narcan certification course was organized by DiRenzo, who works with the Atlantic City-based South Jersey Aids Alliance to put on free training sessions.

“He saved a life already,” she said. “It makes you feel so empowered.”

Participants leave with a certification card, a vial of Narcan — the brand name of the antidote naloxone — and the procedures for administering it.

“I’m so happy there are people in the field who care enough and are getting trained,” DiRenzo said.

Course rosters include physicians, probation officers, workers with the Center for Family Services and counselors. DiRenzo encourages those actively using drugs to carry the antidote.

“Most people use together. Few people use alone,” she reminded.

Story via courierpostonline.com