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The Controversy Behind Naloxone and How One Utah Group Promotes Its Usage to Save Lives

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The Controversy Behind Naloxone and How One Utah Group Promotes Its Usage to Save Lives

May 11, 2016

Utah ranks fourth in the nation in deaths related to opioid overdoses. That equates to more than 10 Utahns dying each week from an overdose – and that rate is rising. Naloxone is a legal drug that temporarily reverses the life-threatening effects of an opioid-based overdose. Yet, many patients and their families don’t seek the drug due to the surrounding controversy. Dr. Jennifer Plumb and her brother Sam Plumb have experienced the tragedy of opioid overdose firsthand and are founders of Utah Naloxone. These two advocates discuss this drug and its positive potential in the community to treat Utah’s ‘silent epidemic.’

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Health tips, medical news, research, and more for a happier, healthier life. From University of Utah Health Sciences, this is The Scope.

Interviewer: You may have heard recently of a drug called Naloxone. What it does is it reverses opioid-based overdoses. So if you have an opioid-based pain pill or if somebody has a drug overdose that's based on opioids, it can actually reverse it and save their lives. Dr. Jennifer Plumb is one of the founders of, is also in pediatric emergency medicine here at University of Utah Healthcare, and Sam Plumb is the program's manager at

I wanted to ask you both, why is this important to you? I've gone to the website. I see that you've put a lot of work into it. I see on my Facebook feed a lot of times you're trying to increase awareness. Dr. Plumb, why?

Dr. Plumb: We are in this position, I think, at a position of passion, but also at a position of a true desire that we can bring awareness to the epidemic that's gripping our state with opioid overdoses. We are fourth in the nation, which is a distinction that certainly nobody wants. We're not talking about it a whole lot, and I think that there are a lot of people out there who have at-risk family members.

We unfortunately lost our brother in 1996 to a heroin overdose, and since that time the situation has just gotten worse and worse. Naloxone was not legal to have in the home setting when Andy died, and it is legal now. So I think that we both feel very passionately that if one family can be spared what we went through, it's all worth it.

Interviewer: It would've saved his life you believe?

Dr. Plumb: Absolutely, I believe it would've saved his life. It would've saved his life.

Interviewer: So when you say we have opioid-based overdoses, are you talking about pain pill overdoses, intentional, accidental? I mean, what are we talking about here, people abusing?

Dr. Plumb: When the figures all come out, the Health Department puts them together and the CDC also puts them together, and they do look at all of those categories. They look at intentional or suicides. They look at accidental or poisonings. We are seeing in this state that we have continued accidental overdose increases. So what do these look like from an opioid perspective? Most of these poisonings and overdose deaths in Utah are from opioid substances.

There are some others, cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol, that can also kill people, and unfortunately does kill people. But the majority are from the opioid-based substances. Of those, the majority probably still is prescribed pain medications. So the pain pills, OxyContins, Percocets, codeines, these medications that we all have heard about in different incarnations in our lives, but heroin is another big one.

The CDC just this year basically released data and released recommendations calling it an epidemic. It's truly an epidemic what's happening. Since 2000, I believe, we're almost up 400% for heroin overdoses nationwide. It's everywhere.

Interviewer: Not a problem here, though, right? Not in Utah.

Dr. Plumb: You certainly wouldn't think so.

Interviewer: But it is.

Dr. Plumb: It absolutely is. It's really challenging, because I get that people don't want to talk about it. There's a lot of stigma around it. But to me, it really is just another medical problem, a critical one and one that will kill someone if it's not dealt with, and if we don't get people help. But we don't talk about it. You're exactly right. It doesn't exist if we don't talk about it. We don't see billboards about it. We don't see PSAs. We need to. We need to start encouraging conversations surrounding these substances so other families don't go through what we have gone through.

Interviewer: Sam, you're also involved in You're the program's manager, and I understand you do a lot of outreach to people that have a drug addiction problem. Talk about that a little bit, and how Naloxone can change things.

Sam: Well, I think it could potentially have a drug addiction problem. When you're doing community street outreach, you're dealing with a population that they obviously aren't in a good place. If they themselves aren't active users, they could know people who are at risk of an overdose, for instance. So the idea is these are people that are typically missed by other realms of the medical field.

They don't typically go to the doctor. They don't have access to the pharmacy. They don't often have insurance. So for that reason, these people are most at risk for having an overdose and not having the access to Naloxone, which can save them.

Interviewer: You actually make these available to those at-risk individuals.

Sam: Yes. We go out to different areas, and you start to have an understanding of more at-risk areas of the city. For instance, I know Pioneer Park is one that people typically think of. The Road Home, places where there are typically going to be people that are living outside or don't have the means to often take care of themselves, or provide themselves the shelter. We will go out and we will educate each and every person that gets a kit so that they know everything that they need to do should they witness an overdose, or should they themselves have an overdose.

Then, we distribute the kits, and we've really had a great response for that matter from that group of people, and they're very willing to be honest about it. If you ask them if they're using, they will tell you frankly, "Yes, I am." When you tell them that you're willing to help them, to say that they're gracious is an understatement.

Interviewer: I'm going to be cynical here for a moment and say, what do you say to individuals that would say, "Well, they have a drug addiction, that's their own problem?"

Sam: I mean, that is probably what we hear the most frequently about that population. But these are people that do not have the typical resources that even somebody of no means may have, for instance family, support, friends, a place to stay, any type of income. Without some type of help, that doesn't mean that they should just die as a result. For these people, you can't recover if you're dead. So Naloxone gives them that chance to actually recover from a potentially fatal overdose, and then also have the opportunity to seek some type of treatment or go into recovery.

It's really surprising, and I think that if you have a doctor or an EMS responder, they revive you, well that person is just doing their job. But if you have a friend, or a mother, a father, actually revive you, I think that that has more of an impact on your future usage as well.

Dr. Plumb: We've seen that too. We've seen firsthand, as well as anecdotal reports from other states. But we've seen firsthand, if someone is revived by their mom, and they wake up and their mom is begging them not to die, there's a different lightbulb that goes off. There is a realization that, "Wow. Somebody really wants me to be alive. I need to be here for myself. I need to be here for them. My life does matter to them." It's been reported in the literature too that actually bystander-administered Naloxone is a much more powerful tool to get people to have that realization that their rock bottom has come.

Interviewer: So that very much near death experience is actually the thing that will help turn them around and perhaps get them unaddicted, or more willing to seek treatment?

Dr. Plumb: On a healthier path, basically.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Plumb: Just to have that realization that, "Wow. I actually need to be here. Someone else sees that I need to be here, not just someone whose job it was to save me. Someone else made the conscious decision to save my life. They're not medical. They just care about me."

Sam: It also is very important to mention that the experience of having Naloxone administered to you, especially if you are an active user, an addict, it is something that is terribly painful. It kicks them into instant withdrawals. Some of the people that we've spoken to have said, "I'd rather be tazed or shot before I get that Naloxone again." You're like, "Well, would you rather be dead?" "No. Well, if I'm going to die, then yes you can give it to me." But other than that, I mean, it's a terribly painful experience. So it's not something that people would use or to . . .

Interviewer: Yeah. Because I was going to ask, I was going to say, now I've got my safety net so, woo, party's on. Right?

Dr. Plumb: Your parachute, kind of. We hear people say, "Oh, you're providing a parachute to people," and that's just not the reality.

Sam: Because if you think about it too, these people who are active users, number one, nobody wants to overdose, nobody wants to be an addict, and beyond that they don't want to waste their last fix. So if you give them Naloxone and they've overdosed, they've just lost their last high. So it's another way to think about it.

Dr. Plumb: Yeah. We do get questions about that, though. "Well, aren't you just enabling use? Aren't you just enabling riskier use? Aren't you just basically telling people you're okay with this choice that they make?" The reality of it is, no, we're not. What we're telling them is, "Hey, listen. We want you to get to a healthier place. We want you to get to a place where your life is not so encompassed by your addiction. But we can't get you there and you can't get yourself there if you're not alive." Naloxone will get you basically breathing again if you've overdosed. That's all it does.

Interviewer: So I know that you're an advocate for having the conversation. It's not just for people that are homeless or at The Road Home. There are plenty of other people that have drug addictions, that have families and live in homes. What would you say to a person that's in that situation that's listening?

Dr. Plumb: Well, I think probably the best way to speak to them would be to provide some examples of folks that have reached out to us. Sam and I can both give you examples of different conversations that we've had with people. I think one of the most powerful ones for me thus far, since we have embarked on this, has come from a mom who desperately reached out to us to get Naloxone. She had asked multiple providers, her physician, other physicians, emergency department physicians, addiction physicians.

She'd asked for a prescription for Naloxone for her son, who was a heroin addict, and at the time he was clean. We all know that one of the times that you're most at risk of overdosing is when you've had a period of sobriety. So your body is not at all accustomed to opiates, even as short as a period of three days and you go back to using what you used before, and you can overdose. So this mom reached out to us and in desperation said, "Can you please help me get Naloxone?"

She came up to Primary Children's and met with me. I educated her on how to use that. I was willing to write her a prescription. She was so uncomfortable getting it from the pharmacy that I ended up just giving her a free kit, which we have the ability to do. She didn't want that on her record. She didn't want that anywhere in the medical record.

Despite the fact that it's completely legal, insurance companies cover it, that it's been done for two decades now in the U.S., she had that stigmatization worry. She got the kit, and within a week she had to use it to save her son. I mean, it gives me chills even now thinking about it, because whether it was her motherly sixth sense or her experiences from the past, but she knew, and she almost didn't have that opportunity to save her son's life. Sam took a call today from a gentleman . . .

Sam: He has some type of chronic back disorder and he's in tremendous pain, and surprisingly he told me that his prescription for pain relief is morphine. He's receiving six doses of morphine throughout one single day of 60 milligrams each dose. Typically, 100 milligrams is something where you start to think of somebody as very high risk, or is a very high dosage, and he's taking 360 milligrams a day.

He's bedridden, he can't work, but he made the effort to call out to get Naloxone, because he said, "I fear for my life with the amount of medication that I am being prescribed, and I worry that my doctor may prescribe more. I want my family to be able to save me if I overdose."

This is a similar story that we hear from other people as well. These aren't just people that are down on their luck. These are people who are taking their medication as prescribed.

Dr. Plumb: And are still just at risk, because at the bottom line, end of the day, these are risky substances. It isn't about a risky person. It isn't about a moral character judgment. It's about these are risky substances, and they are everywhere in our society. I think all of us should take a little thought about, "Do I have these in my home? Do I have these in my home for a legitimate reason, or what may be an illegitimate reason?"

It doesn't matter to me. If they're in the home, they don't discriminate. They can absolutely cause an overdose and a death, and being prepared is really just not only smart, but it's appropriate. It's not asking for anything wrong by asking to be able to keep yourself or the people that you love alive.

Interviewer: It's like having a fire extinguisher or a first-aid kit, or an EpiPen, or an inhaler, or any of those things that you would use.

Dr. Plumb: Absolutely. Although, interestingly, an EpiPen which is absolutely vital for people who have anaphylaxis or allergic reactions to things, an EpiPen can actually hurt you. It's epinephrine, adrenaline. That can cause heart arrhythmias. That can actually hurt you. Naloxone can't hurt you. So I mean, even a level beyond it, I absolutely advocate for EpiPens and think they should be everywhere we know where they should be, but Naloxone is even safer. But it is very much the same thinking, that if there were to be that worst case scenario, you'd be prepared.

Sam: I think that's something that is particularly salient here in Utah, because we have our own culture here and it is a very stigmatized issue, whether it's an opioid pain medication or if it's an illicit substance. But we do hear from people that call us to talk about Naloxone after it's too late. Oftentimes in Utah, unfortunately, the conversation starts too late, when somebody has already been lost and there's nothing that can be done. So given how simple it is and how safe it is, it just makes complete sense to have it.

Interviewer: That's right. This can be that conversation.

Dr. Plumb: Right. Absolutely.

Interviewer: Right?

Dr. Plumb: Think about it.

Interviewer: This is the conversation and now go out and get . . . So do you just, prescription from your physician?

Dr. Plumb: Yeah. Your physician can absolutely prescribe it there. It's 100% legal for them to do so. Some physicians are a little uncomfortable with it, and I think that this will come in time. The law is pretty fresh still. I think physicians will become more comfortable with it.

But if you do run into a conversation where your physician states they're not comfortable, reach out to us. I can absolutely call in a prescription statewide, and we have done so from St. George to Brigham City and Wendover to Vernal, statewide. It's absolutely legal for me to call in a prescription for anyone who's either at risk of an overdose or at risk of witnessing an overdose.

Sam: For more information or to view our training videos, or even for other resources such as treatment and medication-assisted treatment, we have all of that listed at

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