Responding to disasters: Opioid overdose has no boundary

September 13, 2018. Strong winds and rain from the outer bands of Hurricane Florence begin impacting the Cape Fear River and Wilmington, NC. Photo by Daniel Cima for the American Red Cross.

During Hurricane Florence, John Decker was not at the shelter in North Carolina the night a woman died from an opioid overdose in September of 2018.

But he heard about the death almost as soon as it happened because for one month, at the onset of the response, Decker was in North Carolina serving as Disaster Health Services chief for the Red Cross relief effort. The young woman who died was her mother’s care-taker, he recalls.

Decker is a Red Cross volunteer who responds to major disasters across the United States. When home in Minnesota, he’s a registered nurse. Now, after ten years with the Red Cross, he’s often at the front lines of providing disaster relief in shelters.

September 15, 2018. Red Cross shelter relief supplies at Farmville Middle School, NC. Photo by Adam Jennings for the American Red Cross.

That night in North Carolina their first concern, Decker says, was to support the young woman’s mother. Their second was to prevent more deaths. Decker connected with national Red Cross disaster leadership that was supporting field activities. Together, they set two immediate priorities: find naloxone and train shelter workers.

The CDC reports that around 130 people die from opioid overdose every day in the United States. During 2017, 47,600 people died from overdoses involving opioids. Those deaths were 68% of drug-related overdoses.

John Decker

Decker found a local source for Narcan, one type of naloxone medicine that reverses overdose.  There were only a couple boxes. Not enough, he figured. Plus, they were expensive. Then, his phone rang.  On the line was a woman who worked with a relief partner. She had 2,500 – 3,000 doses. With help, Decker picked them up and got them distributed to more than 400 shelters.

The Red Cross and its partners supported more than 129,700 overnight stays for people displaced because of Hurricane Florence across North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. During Fiscal Year 2018, the Red Cross and its partners provided more than 1 million overnight shelter stays for people affected by disasters.

A sign at the Red Cross relief headquarters in North Carolina. Courtesy of John Decker.

Next up was teaching shelter workers the signs of opioid overdose and the steps to respond. Initially, some people resisted. They were comfortable delivering relief supplies, not giving someone a medicine requiring injection.  The training transformed their feelings and their skills. At first it’s scary, and then we learn, and then it’s nothing, Decker says. “It’s good to get rid of the mystery. It’s no more complicated than a kid’s Legos.”

September 17, 2018. The Red Cross shelter at the University of North Carolina Friday Center in Chapel Hill. Photo by Daniel Cima for the American Red Cross.

Since then, the Red Cross released an online class that helps people respond to opioid overdose emergencies. I took the course and learned a lot. It removed my anxiety and strengthened my confidence about helping someone during an opioid overdose emergency. Check out and take the class here. For a quick understanding of opioid overdose, watch this new video.

Story by Lynette Nyman for the American Red Cross Minnesota Region.

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