Family members work to end overdose deaths in Utah with free naloxone kits
Dec 10, 2019 02:24PM
By Heather Lawrence
Andy Plumb died of an overdose in 1996. His siblings started Utah Naloxone in his honor. (Photo courtesy Dr. Jen Plumb)
By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]
Andy Plumb’s overdose in 1996 changed his siblings’ lives forever.
“Andy was a middle-class kid from the suburbs, and heroin was a big problem,” said his older sister, Dr. Jen Plumb. Andy was the middle child, a hero to his little brother Sam. But that night, neither Andy’s family nor his friends had access to naloxone, a lifesaving drug that reverses overdoses. That night, Andy passed away.
“Andy’s friends were with him when he overdosed on May 14, 1996. They were scared. They left Andy in the basement, buried the paraphernalia and remaining drugs in the yard, and left. No one called 911. This is the scenario that we are hoping to prevent across our state,” wrote Andy’s siblings on utahnaloxone.org.
In honor of their brother, Jen and Sam started Utah Naloxone in conjunction with the Utah Department of Human services. It is now run by Jen and Jake Zimmerli.
Utah Naloxone’s mission is to get a naloxone kit into the hands of everyone who could use one. “This isn’t limited to law enforcement or health care teams. It’s for anyone,” Jen said.
Opiates include OxyContin, codeine, Dilaudid, heroin and Lortab. Naloxone reverses opioid overdoses. “Opiates sit on the brain receptors and trigger a release of pain. But they also trigger respiratory depression (lung failure),” Jen said.
“Naloxone works as a pure antidote or antagonist. It essentially knocks the opiates off the receptors and tells the body to start breathing again. You can’t overdose on naloxone. You can’t get high off of it. The only thing it does is reverse an opioid overdose,” Jen said.
Utah Naloxone has gotten a lot of attention. “We are about 50 months in, and since we started, we know of 3,343 reversals that have been reported,” Jen said.
The nonprofit keeps quarterly numbers on the distribution of kits. “From July to September 2019 we distributed 5,975 kits. Since we started in 2015, we’ve distributed 65,000 kits statewide,” she said.
Distribution of naloxone in Utah was approved in 2014. “It was a win, but we felt naloxone wasn’t getting enough attention. So we founded Utah Naloxone in July 2015. We launched the billboard campaign in 2016. We wish naloxone would have been there for Andy,” she said.
The billboard campaign also featured Maline Hairup of Sandy. Hairup’s sister Mindy Vincent, an LCSW with a master’s in public administration, has told her sister’s story many times. “She was a devout member of the LDS Church who did not drink, smoke or use drugs,” wrote Hairup’s family on the Utah Naloxone website.
Vincent said her sister’s addiction was a direct result of legitimately prescribed pain medications. “After 15 years of being dependent on opiates, Hairup’s prescriptions were pulled. [She] still struggled with her pain and her addiction, and on Aug. 24, 2014, she tried heroin for the first time. Hairup went to sleep that night and never woke up,” Vincent wrote.
Because of Hairup, Vincent founded the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition. UHRC is a nonprofit that, among other things, distributes naloxone kits to the homeless population in Salt Lake. “All of [the work I’ve done] is because of Maline’s death. It changed everything about me. She made me who I am today,” Vincent said.
“Hairup never thought she had a problem. She was a firm believer that because the doctor prescribed the pills it was OK,” Vincent said in another story published by UK newspaper “The Guardian” in May 2016.
Jen said posting photos and stories helps humanize the widespread opioid epidemic. Court rulings earlier this year determined that the problem was largely exacerbated by drug companies like Purdue Pharma. Their business practices allowed for major over-prescription of opioids. Rehab is part of the plan, but “no one can get better if they’re dead. Naloxone gives them that chance,” Jen said.
“We want to normalize the access to naloxone. People will use it if they can do so anonymously. They don’t want their doctor, pharmacist, neighbors or employer to know. Our program educates people and gets the kits to them free of charge. There’s no written record of who gets it,” Jen said.
“In addition to law enforcement and fire departments, we’ve given naloxone kits to every public librarian in the Salt Lake Valley. The librarian will show you how to use the kit and give you one,” she said.
Jen said that just like the perception of addiction is changing, so is the perception of who is a hero. “It’s not just someone in a white lab coat in the ER. With naloxone kits, the people who are saving lives are often either people who use drugs or are in that community. I’ve heard of a 14-year-old who saved her mom and an 80-year-old who saved her husband,” she said.
If you are with someone who overdoses, call 911. For more information on naloxone programs and clinics, or to read the stories of the people on the billboards, go to www.utahnaloxone.org or visit their social media accounts. Another resource is the SafeUT app.
The numbers and anecdotes tell Jen that things are improving. “My favorite story happened a few months ago. Some city leaders were touring the block around the Road Home downtown. While they were walking, someone overdosed right in front of them. A person yelled out, ‘Anyone have naloxone?’ One of the people in the group had it and knew how to administer it. The person was saved.”