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Retired firefighter-paramedic gives away 800 doses of naloxone

Luis Garcia’s South Florida Opioid Crisis Mortality Reduction Project hopes to reduce the number of fatal overdoses

By Suzanne Hirt
The News-Journal

DELAND, Fla. — No one can recover from addiction if they’re dead.

That was the message retired Boynton Beach firefighter and paramedic Luis Garcia hammered home to a class of about 30 people gathered at the Volusia Flagler Family YMCA on Friday, which also was International Overdose Awareness Day.

Garcia said he purchased 800 doses of 4-milligram Narcan nasal spray -- an opioid overdose-reversing drug -- to distribute across the state as part of his South Florida Opioid Crisis Mortality Reduction Project.

The opioid epidemic can be traced back to the late 1990s when physicians at Florida pill mills began dispensing highly addictive painkillers for a price. The Legislature cracked down on dirty doctors and started monitoring prescription data in 2011.

Addicts whose access to prescription narcotics dried up turned to street drugs such as heroin, which often is mixed with fentanyl, a deadly lab-manufactured opioid.

In Volusia County last year, 153 people suffered drug-related deaths, and 130 of those resulted from opioid abuse.

Garcia believes arming the public with Narcan will reduce that number.

“I witnessed the AIDS crisis and the cocaine crisis. We’re going to find that the opioid pandemic in the USA will far exceed the number of deaths from all of that combined,” Garcia said. “Virtually all these deaths are preventable. Many would live to go into recovery if only someone was there to give them Narcan.”

Volusia County first responders used Narcan 620 times in 2017, Volusia County Sheriff’s Office data shows. This year, agencies countywide already have received 751 overdose calls.

Garcia said he has given away 700 doses of Narcan to Floridians so far, including those dispensed Friday. Narcan costs more than $50 per dose, but is discounted under many insurance plans, he said.

Karen Moran, an addiction counselor who also works part time at the YMCA and helped organize the training, encouraged participants not to hesitate if they encounter someone they suspect has overdosed.

“No one can be harmed by Narcan in any way, physically or medically, so if there’s even an inkling (that a person has overdosed), do it,” said Moran.

Part of Garcia’s goal as he teaches at law enforcement agencies and healthcare facilities around Florida is to change the way people view addicts.

“I really believe every human life is worth saving,” said Garcia, adding that the stigma surrounding addiction has stifled society’s compassion toward drug users. “Misconceptions and negative thinking about others makes it harder to fight this crisis.”

The group assembled at the YMCA Friday included pharmacy staffers, nursing students, healthcare professionals and a woman in recovery. All had a personal connection to the opioid crisis.

Several spoke of friends or family members who abused drugs or had fatally overdosed. Pharmacy workers at a Daytona Beach chain store recalled finding a man in his 20s unresponsive in the store’s bathroom, and watching as first responders administered Narcan to revive him.

Garcia said that experience highlighted a common misconception that most overdoses occur in treatment or recovery centers. “Ground zero is parking lots, it’s (public) bathrooms,” he said.

In June, a 51-year-old woman was found dead inside a vehicle outside a Deltona Winn-Dixie store. And in April 2016, two men were found unresponsive in a car parked at Wawa in Orange City, one of whom did not survive.

Both deaths were attributed to apparent drug overdose.

In April, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged more Americans to carry naloxone, the medication sold under the brand Narcan, among others.

“Knowing how to use naloxone and keeping it within reach can save a life,” the advisory stated. “Expanding the awareness and availability of this medication is a key part of the public health response to the opioid epidemic.”

Copyright 2018 The News-Journal