As fentanyl ravages region, nonprofit trains locals on naloxone

  • Jill Shanahan, assistant director for drug user health with Tapestry, runs a Narcan nasal spray workshop, training people in the use of the life-saving drug on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Narcan nasal spray and packaging. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Illaria Dana, left, and Jill Shanahan from Tapestry run a Narcan nasal spray workshop on Tuesday at Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/26/2019 8:43:29 PM

MONTAGUE — A handful of local residents gathered in a women’s center Tuesday evening to learn how to administer the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone, amid a crisis only growing worse as fentanyl tightens its grip on the region.

To help address the problem, Tapestry, a regional social services organization, with the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, held four free public health training sessions in the area this month. The classes included information about opioid use as well as demonstrating how to administer Narcan, one brand name for naloxone.

“It’s not my job to tell somebody to use or not to use,” said Jill Shanahan, assistant director for drug user health with Tapestry. “It’s my job to help keep them alive in those moments. I always think of — what’s the alternative?”

After a period of modest decline in deaths by opioid-related overdoses, in 2018 fatalities spiked yet again, due to the emergence of a synthetic, stronger version of opioids: fentanyl. Last year, 22 Franklin County residents died of such an overdose, up from nine in 2017 and 14 in 2016. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent — and far deadlier — than heroin, delivering a shorter, more intense high for its users.

Today, almost all heroin doses contain fentanyl, Shanahan said at Tuesday’s session at Montague Catholic Social Ministries in Turners Falls.

Fentanyl presents another litany of health issues.

“Fentanyl doesn’t last in the system as long as regular opioids, like a pill or regular heroin,” Shanahan said. “It comes out of the system quickly, so people are going through withdrawal faster, so their injection practices may be a little less safe when they’re using more frequently. They might be reusing syringes multiple times or sharing.”

Naloxone does not cause harm, and can be provided even if someone has not overdosed on opioids. Narcan, a nasal spray, is only effective for opioid overdoses.

Shanahan spoke about the importance of helping drug users stay safe, that “meeting people where they are” will increase their chance of surviving an overdose.

“Even though you don’t want your person to use, what we talk about is having that dialogue with their person,” Shanahan said. “That’s also really hard for families to do that, but … even if people are making these decisions that they don’t necessarily agree with, they want to be prepared.”

While Illaria Dana, a harm reduction counselor at Tapestry, said it is important to call 911, she recognized that some drug users and bystanders may feel apprehensive about calling the police for various reasons, fearing they may be arrested or lose their home. The “Good Samaritan Law,” enacted in Massachusetts in 2012, prohibits a patient and one responder from being arrested for using drugs if they call emergency services for an overdose.

However, the law does not protect people from being arrested for committing other offenses they may have done in the past, or in the present, like intending to sell drugs. It also doesn’t protect the patient from “substance free” rules their residence may have in place, which is common in subsidized housing.

Many times, the loved ones of those who have overdosed must choose between calling an ambulance and losing their home, Shanahan said. Harm reduction counselors advise those responding to an overdose to physically remove a patient from their housing.

“That’s a real reality for a lot of people,” Shanahan said. “Who needs that extra fear when you’re literally trying to save your loved one’s life?”

Three women working in the medical industry attended the meeting. Tina Berry and Kelly Luddington, receptionists for the Franklin County Community Health Center in Orange and Greenfield, respectively, said they came to the meeting to ensure they’d know what to do if someone overdoses in the lobby.

“I have it in my drawer, but I don’t know how to use it,” Berry said of naloxone.

Kathy Schermerhorn, a local acupuncturist and volunteer at the People’s Medicine Clinic, part of The RECOVER Project, said she attended the meeting to educate and prepare herself, as the opioid epidemic continues to surge.

“As a health professional, I think it’s the responsible thing to do,” Schermerhorn said.

Among the services Tapestry offers is a syringe access program, which seeks to keep current drug users safe, Shanahan said. The nonprofit has several syringe access and disposal sites across the region, with one located at Greenfield’s Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew. The Greenfield location serves those who use drugs and their family members, as well as any other community members. It offers free clean syringes and naloxone, education on managing and curbing drug intake, and kindness, to dispel the shame users may feel.

According to Shanahan, the program does not only distribute needles. Counselors are “really saving lives and developing these plans with folks, to help keep them alive.” She said treating drug users like equals empowers those people, increasing the likelihood that they use safely and even try to curb their addiction.

“Often people don’t understand what really goes on in a needle exchange or a syringe access program,” Shanahan said. “And it’s that time, it’s that relationship. It’s me seeing his posture grow 2 inches taller on his way out. And then to come back and say, ‘Hi, and thank you.’”

The most important function of the syringe access program is to form relationships with drug users, Shanahan said. This means counselors can ask someone who uses questions to learn more about their habit or disorder. And then, workers may be able to talk to users about managing or even lessening their intake, as anyone would do to reduce their use of any substance, like smoking, coffee or food.

Reach Grace Bird at or
413-772-0261, ext. 280.


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