Last week the University of Tennessee at Martin officially became the first state school in Tennessee to train and equip housing hall directors with Narcan opioid overdose prevention kits. The milestone is one example of how the Weakley County Prevention Coalition (WCPC) is meeting the goals of the TN: Save A Life Project, established to provide overdose training and pain management options throughout the state.
Melesa Lassiter BSN, RN led the training on the UTM campus just as she has led training for every law enforcement entity in all of the northwest region of Tennessee (Benton, Carroll, Crockett, Dyer, Gibson, Henry, Lake, Obion, and Weakley counties) except for three small communities, and those are scheduled.
This significant accomplishment has been achieved since September 2017 when Lassiter assumed the role of regional overdose prevention specialist (ROPS) of Region 6 North. The Dresden native says her goal is to “educate the public, medical community, law enforcement, and first responders on the opioid epidemic.”
The training Lassiter and other ROPS offer includes background on what opioids are (prescription medications that are used to treat pain such as morphine, codeine, oxycodone, Percocet, and hydrocodone), the signs and symptoms of an overdose, and how to administer Narcan (or the generic named Naloxone), the opioid reversal drug that prompts immediate withdrawal symptoms.
Many opioid medications can be absorbed through the skin without the person knowing that they are being exposed. More than 80 percent of opioid overdoses occur at home when a friend or caregiver is present, and about 80 percent of opioid emergencies such as an overdose are deemed accidental.
When Lassiter took on the ROPS title, she was given the goal and the clearance to create what accomplishing it would look like. Her first step was contacting law enforcement. In less than seven months, the project has ensured that by the end of June every officer in the nine counties will be carrying Narcan.
“With the coalitions partnerships, we have completed many public forums and two medical forums with great success,” said Lassiter.
“More than 200 units of Narcan (naloxone) have been delivered to laypersons and agencies, as well as more than 650 of Narcan (naloxone) to law enforcement agencies,” she reported. The kits and the training are free to the public.
And perhaps the best news of all, reports have already started coming in that lives are being saved.
“The stories I’ve gotten are they are literally Lazarus moments,” she said of instances where the reversal drugs were utilized and the patients who were near death were revived, got up and began functioning.
The former labor and delivery and then emergency room nurse acknowledges the excitement and satisfaction she once received when seeing a baby born or an injured child restored and calmed in the ER now comes by another means.
“I’ve always been a thrill seeker,” she said. “I thrive well under pressure. Love deadlines. Love creating something from nothing, so this role is a good fit. Now, hearing the stories of saved lives is my adrenaline.”
When notified that someone has been saved, Lassiter partners with Lifeline coordinator Brannon Powell to provide options for treatment and recovery, if the patient suffering from addiction desires.
However, not all overdoses are due to addiction. Because opioids can be absorbed through the skin, family members and friends of opioid users can be exposed accidently.
The most recent statistics available are from 2016 when 1,631 overdoses occurred in the state and 1,186 of those were from opioids.
In July 2017, the Weakley County Prevention Coalition received a state-targeted response grant that launched the training program Lassiter now leads out of the WCPC offices. In the nine counties assigned to her, Lassiter notes that five have established coalitions and two are in the process of forming coalitions.
The WCPC states its vision as “to fashion a community that is safe, healthy, thriving, and engaged.” It does so by providing the mechanism by which individuals and groups within the community can “unite forces and impact the community in a much more effective and lasting manner than working alone.”
Lassiter readily agrees, “Coalitions know their counties, their law enforcement, their media. And to accomplish our goals we need that knowledge.”
Next up for Lassiter is increased outreach to schools, more public events, and medical forums. One goal is to have doctors co-prescribe Naxolone when prescribing an opioid.
“If they truly need the medicine for pain, we don’t want them to accidently overdose,” she noted.
As to the long-range nature of her work and the concerted efforts of addressing what has been called a national epidemic, Lassiter is pragmatic.
“This didn’t start overnight, and it isn’t going away overnight,” she said.
For more information on training available, please call 731-819-7603.