Opioid Overdose Prevention as a Unifying Aim
The opioid crisis does not pick and choose victims based on political views, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status--one of the deadliest issues of our generation is also one of the most non-discriminating.
More Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016 than during the entirety of the Vietnam War, and in that same year, more people died from overdoses than were killed by guns, or in car accidents. Even more shockingly, while the overwhelming majority of people entering treatment for heroin addiction in the 1960s started with heroin itself, of those who began abusing opioids in the 2000s, 75 percent reported that their first opioid was a prescription drug.
On January 29, the United Against Inequities in Disease (UAID) and YU Red Cross held an event on the Wilf campus dedicated to informing students about all the above information as well as training students to administer Naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids. Naloxone is often sold under the brand name “Narcan” and, in the case of this training session, sprayed into the nose of someone experiencing an overdose. Over 40 students, from both the Wilf and Beren campuses, learned about the enormity of the opioid epidemic, as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration refers to it, and their part in preventing deaths from overdose.
The event began with a presentation given by Christine Fitzsimmons, an inspiring, lively, and humorous representative from the Washington Heights Corner Project. The social services organization works to reduce risk associated with sex work and drug use. Fitzsimmons captivatingly described symptoms of overdose, which include a slow or erratic pulse, loss of consciousness, unresponsiveness, slow and shallow breathing, and the inability to talk. She then continued to demonstrate exactly how to administer Naloxone by using a nose spray.
The presentation and training were in themselves incredibly meaningful to experience, but to me the event meant something much bigger. I have watched one of my closest friends, who I met in an Orthodox Jewish summer camp seven years ago, become addicted and suffer throughout her entire adolescence, go through rehab, and come out on the other end of opioid dependency. While we did not live in the same city, we consistently stayed in touch over the phone, and she told me years later that those phone calls had meant more to her than I could ever have realized at the time, in terms of emotional support.
She felt helpless to stop throughout that time of her life; helpless to even consider that she wasn’t alone during the cycle that could be ended. It is precisely this feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that raising awareness of the opioid crisis among the general population can prevent.
When asked to recount her experiences and explain what it felt like to be completely dependant on opioids, my friend explains, “It’s a rush of euphoria followed by an extreme calm. I’d sink into a haze, and everything would slowly buzz into silence. When I’d come to [after starting during the day], it’d be dark outside -- hours since I had passed out. It should have been terrifying. But instead, I was ready to do it again… What should have upset and scared me made no impact except for the fact that I wanted to do it again, and soon. Later that night in fact. It's the nature of my disease. Once I ‘stuck a toe in the water,’ it didn't matter if I almost died, didn't matter what I woke up to, what or whom I’ve lost, what I've become. The exhilaration and sense of tranquility is paramount to everything else. I felt whole again… until it would stop working for me. Then I’d keep chasing that first high. Until I've had enough -- and only then was recovery possible.”
Seeing the determination of the Corner Project speaker to make a difference, paired with the determination of dozens of YU students to learn about overdose prevention, made me feel that we were truly united against this issue as a student body. Looking around the room, I saw every student as someone who was willing, and now trained, to save the life of those in need, like my ex-addicted friend -- she had known countless people who had overdosed, and could easily have herself, and my peers wanted to prevent this! Seeing close friends of mine at the event just drove the point home further. I had not discussed the event with any of them beforehand, and was surprised to see friends from very different groups show up. The crowd reflected the entire gamut of political and religious variation within YU. Additionally, there were about as many female students as male students at the event, despite the event being held uptown, and that kind of representation was empowering to see.
I was genuinely surprised by the turnout, and by the amount of interest shown in the topic -- students interacted and asked questions more than at any health-related event I had witnessed before. Perhaps the event filled a gap that YU students long needed filled; perhaps we need to create more dialogue on issues like these, so that questions about addiction, and the problems that those going through addiction face are no longer taboo and stigmatized. In either case, the Naloxone training session was a good start. Being a part of this group of young people felt truly like being part of a small, determined segment of our generation ready to self-educate and battle one of today’s deadliest epidemics.