Washington Heights Learns to Fight Drug Overdoses with Narcan

Components of Narcan kit provided to participants at a free training session in Washington Heights. (The Ink / Jeevika Verma)

Every six hours, a New Yorker dies of a drug overdose, according to the city’s health department. One way to tackle this grim statistic is to train people to use naloxone, a drug that can reverse the potentially fatal effects of an overdose. On Wednesday, residents of Washington Heights and Inwood, a neighborhood with one of the highest overdose rates in the city, learned how to use the drug, sold under the brand name Narcan, in a free training session at the 34th Precinct.

Kellie Bryant, an assistant professor at Columbia University School of Nursing who led the training session, was certified by the Harm Reduction Coalition to carry out Narcan trainings on behalf of the Department of Health only a year ago. Since then, she has trained over 500 participants all over the city. At Wednesday’s training session, she gave out almost 40 Narcan kits containing the drug in a nasal spray. Narcan can reverse an overdose in under five minutes, Bryant said.

“My sessions can range anywhere from 10-45 minutes depending on the rigor of training,” she said. “Community meetings are always interesting, because you don’t know what kind of questions you’re going to get.”

At Wednesday’s half-hour session, one participant recounted his experience on opioids and the urgent need for naloxone. Others were concerned about the side effects, administration process, and expiration dates of the medication.

Bryant explained how she has given naloxone to newborn babies whose mothers had been on drugs when pregnant.

“That’s how safe naloxone is,” she said. “Like, I could spray this up my nose right now and nothing would happen to me. It only works on people with opioids in their system.”

At the end of the session, Bryant quizzed the crowd in an effort to make sure they knew exactly how to administer the medication. She took them through the steps again: If you see a person slumped over, shake them. If they don’t wake up, provide a sternum rub. If they still don’t wake up, administer the first nasal spray and only then call 911. Time, she said, is critical.

She also explained that fentanyl is a common, cheap, but deadly opiate being mixed into drugs on the streets. Heroin can take up to three hours to create an overdose while fentanyl can make someone overdose in a matter of minutes, she said.

“There’s a second dose of naloxone in each free kit, if the first one just isn’t enough,” Bryant said. “And even if someone wakes up after the first dose, naloxone only stays in their system for 30 to 90 minutes, so you should still get them some help to prevent another overdose.”

Drugs like methadone, she said, can stay in a user’s blood for 24 hours.

“Everyone is more and more aware of the opioid crisis, so the response to these trainings has been overwhelmingly positive,” Bryant said. “When I go to one training, I get invited to another, and then another, and so on.”

Allegra LeGrande, the treasurer at the 34th Precinct Community Council, invited Bryant to the Wednesday session after seeing her lead another session a week earlier in another precinct.

“Every time we hear about an overdose it hits close to home,” LeGrande said, adding that she wants to get kits into everyone’s hands. “We all know a family member or a friend who has suffered. This training shows people that they can find the time – those few moments – to have a second chance.”

Commanding Officer Reymundo Mundo said training is essential and he plans to have another session in six months.

“We’ve now decided that all officers need to carry Narcan kits on them,” he said. “We’ve already saved a lot of lives this way.”

The Narcan kits include two doses of naloxone nasal spray, gloves, alcohol prep strips, and a rescue breathing face shield in case the Narcan administer needs to provide CPR. The kit also includes Bryant’s business card so users can contact her after administering the medicine to give her feedback, and if needed, receive a new free kit.

In her presentation, Bryant mentioned that incarcerated individuals who have been detoxed have a 129 percent higher chance of overdosing in the two weeks after their release. Danielle Jettoo, a program coordinator at Rikers Island who is on the health and environment committee at Community Board 12 in Manhattan, said she was happy to see the training session in her community and that she hopes the city will find ways to treat substance abuse and find alternatives to incarceration by continuing such trainings.

Several community members at the meeting said they had learned a lot.

“I came to this meeting to express concerns about the exchange of narcotics on the corner of my street,” said John Bines, who has lived in Washington Heights for 25 years. “But now I’m learning that the issue is much bigger. I had no idea.”

Bines says he will now be more aware of the widespread impact of opioids when walking around his neighborhood and will be sure to look out for people in need of help.

“I didn’t just learn how to use these naloxone kits today,” he said. “I actually learned how big and dangerous this problem is, right where I’m living.”