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Why Tacoma Paramedics Are Handing Out Nasal Sprays To Overdose Survivors

Will James
Kurt Gordon, a paramedic with the Tacoma Fire Department, holds a Narcan "rescue kit"

Paramedics in Tacoma are giving out plastic bags full of lifesaving nasal spray to people who survive overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids. 

Tacoma's fire department is the first in the state to launch such an initiative, called a "leave-behind" program, which began in late January. When paramedics revive someone from an overdose, they leave the patient with a "rescue kit" containing two doses of the same drug used to save their life. 

Naloxone, also known as Narcan, can reverse an opioid overdose almost instantly by blocking opioid receptors in the brain. 

"You have someone who, for all intents and purposes, looks dead to most people," said Tacoma paramedic Kurt Gordon, who oversees the program. "You can give this medication with a simply spray and mist, and a few minutes later their eyes are open, their skin color looks normal, and they're walking and talking again." 

Medical professionals have relied on Narcan for years. In Tacoma, the fire department's use of the drug has increased by 50 percent since 2013 as paramedics have responded to an epidemic of addiction to heroin and other opioids that has swept the country. 

For the first time, paramedics with the fire department are giving those they revive, and their loved ones, a chance to act next time before emergency responders arrive. 

"It looks just like any nasal medication you might get over the counter for allergies," Gordon said of the nasal spray.

Communities that distribute the medication, he said, have been shown to reduce their overdose deaths by about six percent.

"It is a modest improvement," Gordon said. "But, if we start counting these numbers, if we had a hundred loved ones, and we could save six of them by distributing these kits, that's how I look at it." 

An equally important part of the rescue kits, he said, is paperwork that tells overdose survivors how to access long-term addiction treatment.

"There's information inside the kit that can help them make that next step to stop using," Gordon said.

Days after launching the program, he responded to a 911 call of an overdose in the bathroom of a business near his fire station in Fife.

"There was security on scene that was well-intentioned," Gordon said. "They were doing CPR on the patient because the patient looked dead."

He was unconscious, turning blue from breathing only a few times a minute, and his pupils had shrunk to tiny dots -- telltale signs of an overdose. Gordon revived the man with an IV injection of Narcan.

Minutes later, the patient was able to walk and talk, and eager to leave the scene. Before he did, Gordon handed him one of the first kits the fire department distributed. 

The next day, in a follow-up call with the fire department, the man said he wanted to enter an addiction treatment program. 

The Tacoma Fire Department's program is funded through a five-year statewide grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Point Defiance AIDS Project, a Tacoma disease-prevention nonprofit, has similar kits available. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.