DuPage police learning to use drug to reverse heroin overdoses

DuPage County sheriff's Col. Peter Sterenberg remembers the first time he saw Narcan, an opiate overdose reversal drug, used to save a life.

It happened more than 15 years ago when he responded to a medical emergency at a gasoline station. A young man in his 20s was unconscious and barely breathing in the back seat of a parked car.

Paramedics immediately knew the man was overdosing on heroin. They responded by giving him a dose of Narcan intravenously.

Sterenberg said it didn't take long for the drug to counteract the effects of the heroin.

"It was an eye-opener how quick he came back," Sterenberg said. "Within minutes, he was awake, alert and anxious."

While paramedics long have been equipped to provide Narcan to overdose victims, a new initiative is making it possible for police officers in DuPage to carry the drug in their squad cars.

The DuPage Narcan Program, part of the county's multitiered effort to combat heroin, is training officers on how to administer the drug. Officials say they expect 1,244 officers from 26 departments to be trained and deployed with Narcan by May.

"Clearly, the sole mission of the DuPage Narcan Program is to save lives," said Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department. "We are doing this by ensuring law enforcement has the required training and the supply of Narcan."

DuPage is responding to a record number of heroin deaths last year when 46 people, including five teens, died from the drug.

Officials say the DuPage Narcan Program is the first countywide initiative of its kind in the state.

"This is a great program in many ways," Coroner Richard Jorgensen said. "It shows that our police officers want to be on the front line of saving people's lives."

Narcan, also known as Naloxone, is a nonaddictive drug that counteracts the effects of opiates, including heroin and OxyContin.

"Drugs, in general, work because they interact with receptors (in the brain)," said Jorgensen, who was a surgeon before becoming coroner. He said Narcan blocks certain receptors.

Seeing the benefit of putting Narcan in the hands of police officers, the DuPage County Chiefs of Police Association teamed with Jorgensen, the health department and other county leaders to develop the training program.

Villa Park Chief Robert Pavelchik said there are situations when police arrive at a scene a few minutes before paramedics, so having officers who can administer Narcan can make a difference.

"We're just trying to get it out to the field just a little faster," Pavelchik said.

The program is possible because of a state law, which took effect in 2010, that allows individuals who aren't medically trained to administer Narcan to prevent an opioid overdose from becoming fatal.

The cost of the program is being funded by the DuPage health department, which devoted about $40,000 from its budget.

The first training session, held in November, provided instruction to representatives from six agencies - the sheriff's office and the Bartlett, Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Wheaton and Wood Dale police departments.

A total of 364 officers from those agencies have since been trained and they each are carrying two doses of Narcan in their squad cars.

On Friday, the health department hosted a training session for representatives from the Darien, Roselle, Burr Ridge, Woodridge, Villa Park, Glen Ellyn, Hanover Park, Glendale Heights, Warrenville, Elmhurst, Willowbrook and West Chicago departments. Those individuals will train the other officers in their departments.

"Our hope is that all the police departments in DuPage County are trained," said Jorgensen, adding that it's up to individual departments to decide if they want to participate.

The doses of Narcan that DuPage police use are delivered using a penlike canister that sprays the drug up a person's nostrils.

"We didn't want to have people out there in emergency stressful situations trying to use needles and things like that," Jorgensen said.

Each dose costs about $16. As of Friday, Narcan hasn't been used by an officer on a heroin overdose victim.

Jorgensen said he's been impressed with how quickly the county responded after he raised concerns last year about the heroin problem.

"We went from just the idea of doing this to actually training people within a couple of months," he said. "Everybody wanted to do this as safely but as quickly as possible because we knew we were having people die."

In addition to the Narcan program, the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin has been formed to organize outreach efforts, including forums, to educate the public about the dangers of heroin. The coalition recently launched a website and social media campaign.

  Villa Park police officer Jeff Runge tests a device used to administer the opiate overdose reversal drug Narcan. Daniel White/
Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department, talks about the DuPage Narcan Program.
  DuPage County health officials are planning to provide Narcan training to officers from 26 area police departments. Photos by Daniel White/
  DuPage officials are hoping to have more than 1,200 police officers trained on how to administer Narcan. Daniel White/
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