How Columbus police officer used new tool to save man who overdosed
The Columbus police officer wasn’t expecting to use the overdose remedy he’d been issued, because he wasn’t called to an overdose.
Around noon Wednesday, Aug. 7, Officer Jared Berger was summoned to a motel off Victory Drive, where an unidentified caller complained of people yelling at each other in one of the rooms.
Berger went to that room and knocked, and saw someone peeking out the window, but no one responded for several minutes. Finally a man around 40, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, opened the door.
“I initially noticed he was shaking,” recalled Berger. “He was already a little sweaty and his eyes were dilated at that time, so I suspected drug use.”
The man denied he’d done any drugs. Berger thought he was lying.
“He was in my eyes slowly declining,” the officer said. “He was standing on his feet, eyes closed, basically unconscious on his feet. We had him sit down on the bed, due to the fact we were afraid he was going to fall and hurt himself.”
As Berger and another officer tried to talk to him, the man’s wife came out of the bathroom, angry, and said they’d been yelling at each other because he’d been out all night, and she had no idea where.
“The wife informed us that he was a heroin user,” Berger said.
Apparently he had just used some, because he was fading fast.
“He was starting to decline once again,” Berger remembered. “His eyes were shut. He was gurgling. It’s a gurgle that’s like a snore. Possibly he was choking on himself, just completely out. Then he became unresponsive to any of our commands to try to make him more alert.”
The officers had called for an ambulance, but the medics had not arrived. Still Berger checked with them to make sure using his single dose of Narcan, the anti-overdose drug naloxone, would do no harm.
Do it, he was told: Naloxone has no effect on people who aren’t using opioids.
So Berger took the dose out of his shirt pocket, tore open the package, put his thumb on the plunger and stuck the nozzle in the man’s nostril and shot the spray into the guy’s nose.
The effect was instantaneous.
“His bright eyes opened nice and wide,” Berger said. “He stated, ‘What the hell was that?’ and was fully alert, at that time, and conscious, so a complete 180 from what he was just a few seconds ago.”
He later got checked out at the hospital, and thanks to Berger’s intervention, got a second chance at life — after going to jail for violating probation.
The rescue was a milestone, for Columbus: It was the first life saved through a grant-funded program to provide a dose of Narcan to every first-responder here, including everyone in the Columbus Police Department, Columbus Fire and Emergency Medical Services, Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office and Muscogee Marshal’s Officer. Columbus State University police also carry the drug.
How Berger came to have that shot of naloxone spray is another story that starts with a married couple’s exchange.
Dayna Solomon is the coordinator for Muscogee County’s adult drug court program, which provides treatment, testing and monitoring for nonviolent offenders who run afoul of the law because of an addiction.
It’s designed to keep addicts who need more help than punishment out of jail. Keeping someone in jail costs $51 a day, Solomon said. Sending that suspect to drug court costs $13 daily.
Solomon is married to Cpl. Tony Newton, who’s with the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office. One night in early 2018 they were watching the A&E television series “Intervention,” about people dealing with the opioid epidemic. The episode was about heroin use in the Atlanta area.
Solomon wondered how police handled overdoses here. “I said, ‘Hey, so tell me what happens if I’m a mom and I have a son and he’s overdosing and I call 911. Walk me through it.’”
Most likely Columbus police would arrive first, report what they found, and wait for an ambulance, he told her.
She asked: What will the officers do while they wait?
“And he said, ‘Well, nothing.’ I said, ‘So I’m sitting there with a mom watching her son overdose, and I can’t do anything because I’m waiting for an ambulance?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘That’s not good enough. You’re supposed to be the hero.’”
As the spouse of a first-responder, she wondered also whether they had any remedy for themselves, should they come in contact with fentanyl or some other deadly drug while on a call. So she asked, “Who has Narcan?”
“And he just kind of looked at me,” she said, “and he said, ‘We don’t have that.’”
They did not have it then, but they do now.
Drug court operates on grant funding, so Solomon knew how to write grant proposals. She found a grant offered by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, under the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.
Last year she got Columbus Council’s permission to apply, and her proposal was approved, providing $125,000 each year for four years to buy the drug and train firefighters and law enforcement officers to use it.
Solomon wanted a catchy name for the program, something people would remember. “I love Columbus’ front porches,” she said, so she called it PORCH, for “Providing Overdose Reversal to give Columbus Hope.”
The funding began Oct. 1, 2018. Since then, 578 doses of Narcan have been distributed to first-responders trained to use the drug, which costs the program $75 for two doses. Typically it costs twice that without a discount, Solomon said.
The training takes only 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how many questions come up, because using Narcan is as easy as using any nasal spray, and just about as safe, having no effect on people who aren’t using opioids.
It sends anyone overdosing into immediate withdrawal, and that can be unpleasant. First-responders are told to leave the person lying on one side, not flat on the back, in case vomiting ensues.
Narcan binds more strongly to the brain’s opioid receptors than the opioids do. “Narcan goes into your body and knocks the opioid off the receptor and then covers it so the opioid can’t reattach,” Solomon said, “so essentially it renders the opioid ineffective.”
Carina Thompson is the PORCH project coordinator. She helps train first-responders to recognize when people are having an overdose.
“Typically they’re unconscious,” she said. “Their breathing is suppressed. You may hear like a rattling-type noise. Then you know they are in distress.”
Officers have to call out, trying to wake them up. The Narcan comes out when people don’t come to.
It has saved a lot of lives, over the years: The federal government estimates that from 1996 to 2014, the use of naloxone has reversed 26,000 overdoses.
Still the opioid epidemic’s death toll remains high. Drug overdose deaths nationwide rose from 16,849 in 1999 to 70,237 in 2017. Research shows overdose rates in 29 Georgia counties exceed the U.S. average, and Georgia ranks among the top 11 states with the most prescription-opioid deaths.
Solomon said Muscogee ranks among the top five Georgia counties for emergency room visits involving opioid overdoses, outpacing some Atlanta-area counties with larger populations. “That’s big, and that tells us that we have a problem,” she said.
Part of that problem is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid the Drug Enforcement Administration says is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and often a hidden ingredient in street drugs.
“Part of the reason for the overdoses these days is we’re cutting heroin with fentanyl…. You’ve got people cutting cocaine with fentanyl,” Solomon said. “You have no idea what you’re getting. This is not FDA approved.”
Back in 2017, yellow pills resembling the painkiller Percocet showed up in Macon, Georgia, and in Russell County, Alabama. They were laced with fentanyl.
It can be so potent that just touching or smelling it is deadly. That’s why officers in law enforcement K-9 units carry two doses of Narcan: One for the handler, and one for the dog.
“The goal of the project is officer safety,” Solomon said. “It’s to protect our people first and foremost. But if we have the chance to save a life, what an amazing thing to do.”
The next phase is to reach families of those addicted to opioids, provide them with Narcan and training, and try to get more people into recovery programs, Solomon said.
“Our goal is for everybody to get the help they need. Our goal is for people to get into recovery and live the life that they’re meant to live, but we have to keep people alive to do that,” she said.
“We can’t treat people who aren’t breathing.”