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Retired US firefighter’s mission is battling opioid addiction

Retired US firefighter’s mission is battling opioid addiction

Lori Heath knows the pain of watching a loved one succumb to opioid addiction.

The Tavares, Florida, resident has publicly shared her anguish over losing her 28-year-old son, who she said was 16 when he became hooked on prescription painkillers after oral surgery. In 2016, while living in Maryland, he died from an overdose, leaving behind his fiancee and young son, she said.

“It was heroin cut with fentanyl,” she said through tears. “He was alone on the floor of a recovery home.”

Now dedicated to helping others overcome such addictions, Heath was on hand to support retired Boynton Beach firefighter Luis Garcia as he held a training session in Mount Dora, Florida, on how to administer Narcan, a drug intended to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose within minutes.

Though he has never been personally affected by opioid addiction, Garcia said the 3,000 overdose calls he responded to during his 28-year career inspired his retirement mission. The 52-year-old, who works at a fire restoration company, spent US$40,000 (RM166,626) of his savings to purchase 800 doses of Narcan.

During the last couple of years, Garcia has travelled around the state giving away the life-saving nasal spray and showing law-enforcement officers and others how to use Narcan.

The drug, also known by its generic name naloxone, works by blocking the opioids from reaching the brain receptors. It is only effective on someone who has opioids in their system and is not harmful if mistakenly administered.

On Thursday, Oct 18, 30 people gathered at Saint Philip Lutheran Church and learned how to pump 4mg of Narcan into someone’s nostril.

“One dose and they come back to the living,” Garcia told the group, adding that 94 lives have been saved from the doses he’s given out so far. “We’re not God, but to see somebody come back from the dead, it’s just like in the Bible.”

Recipients of the free Narcan dosages have to promise they will immediately call 911 if they suspect someone has overdosed and must be willing to help a stranger.

“If you see a homeless person on the street (who has overdosed), you have to help them,” said Garcia, who started the South Florida Opioid Crisis Mortality Reduction Project.

In the last few years, many Central Florida law-enforcement agencies and fire departments have trained first responders to use Narcan on the job and equipped them with portable kits.

Earlier this month, Orange County officials launched Project Leave Behind, a programme funded by the state Department of Children and Families, that enables firefighters to distribute Narcan kits to relatives when they respond to overdose calls.

Garcia has led 52 classes so far in Florida, depleting his original supply of 800 doses and a couple hundred others he purchased with donations from a GoFundMe account and non-profit organisations.

He estimates his Narcan stock will run out by mid-February next year unless he can come up with additional funds to purchase another supply.

After her son’s death, Heath said she has channelled her grief into helping others as a ministry leader for Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based 12-step programme, at First Baptist Church of Umatilla.

“One of the things that they say in recovery,” Heath said, “is in giving Narcan, we’re saving their life until they want to live.” – Tribune News Service/The Orlando Sentinel/Lisa Maria Garza

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