Sitting at the kitchen table inside her Florence home, Mary Lu speaks quickly and with passion about her life. She sips a Diet Coke and talks about her friends and her family, her exercise group and her church.

“I love life,” she says, in case those listening can’t tell from her enthusiasm and her easy smile.

Family photos, candles and flowers dot the kitchen surfaces, more proof, it seems, of the happy, easy life of the retiree. But tucked inside the cabinet closest to the kitchen door are four doses of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal medication.

Mary Lu is part of a small army of Northern Kentuckians arming themselves with the medication to save the lives of those fighting the disease of addiction.

Once relatively hard to get, naloxone, known to many by the brand name Narcan, is now handed out on a regular schedule at each of the locations of the Northern Kentucky Health Department. Each kit contains two doses of nasal spray naloxone, directions and information about local treatment resources.

Those acquiring a kit receive a 10-to-15 minute training from a Health Department nurse on how to properly use the kit—on how to potentially save the life of a loved one in the throes of an overdose. Most don’t come as a precaution against a minimal risk; they come because they expect to have to use it. They come because they believe that this kit and the 10-minute training could be all that stands between their loved one and death.

That’s why Mary Lu got her first kit, now expired but still in her cabinet. Her son is an addict who used for years before entering recovery. Those years were spent filled with worry that he would die as a result of his addiction.

Today, he is 30-months sober, Mary Lu announces proudly, glancing at the photo of him and his family that sits in her living room. It has been a hard-fought battle that took him to multiple treatment centers, to jail and even to death and back.

“He overdosed at a rehab and, by the grace of God, the wonderful person who found him and Narcan, he’s alive and well today. He was dead and they brought him back,” she says. “Is he going to stay clean forever? God, I hope so, but I take every day as a blessing.”

He is one of the lucky ones. 

The rate of overdose deaths in Northern Kentucky is alarming—one death every 39 hours according to 2016 statistics, the latest confirmed data from the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics. Preliminary 2017 data, which will not be finalized until this fall, shows a slight decrease in those figures.

In 2016, 226 overdose deaths were reported in Northern Kentucky, 191 of those in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.

Death, while certainly the most tragic, is only one of the many repercussions of addiction. Rates of Hepatitis C have skyrocketed locally and are now at 20 times the national average. The number of cases of HIV associated with IV drug use showed a sudden increase in 2017. And most recently the statewide outbreak of Hepatitis A has also been found to be associated with drug use, prompting the Northern Kentucky Health Department to call for increased prevention measures including the vaccination among high-risk populations.

“Some of the biggest health problems associated with addiction are in the people around the person with the substance use disorder. Babies born to women who use drugs while pregnant can be born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which can have long-term effects. Addiction can also impact the families and children of people who are using drugs. These impacts can include long-lasting, multi-generational issues in mental and physical health,” says Dr. Lynne M. Saddler, the district director of health at the Northern Kentucky Health Department.

Though it is impossible to know the number of people addicted in Northern Kentucky, it is clear that there are not enough services to treat all of those needing and wanting help. The list of patient services provided by Northern Kentucky Hates Heroin lists only four Northern Kentucky locations. Many addicts detox in jail, but once released without treatment, return to drugs.

The Kenton County Jail’s Substance Abuse Program has changed that for many of its inmates. Those who participate in the program are provided substance abuse treatment, including counseling, group therapy and classes. Upon release, participants are also provided with Vivitrol, a medication to block the effects of opioids making it easier to stay clean, sober living options and mentors.

The program has become a national model for opioid treatment. Campbell County has started a similar program and Boone County Judge Executive Gary Moore says he is studying ways to implement one in the Boone County Jail.

SUN Behavioral Health, which opened in Erlanger in February, provides detox and both inpatient and intensive outpatient services, including medically assisted treatment, for those suffering from addiction. The 197-bed facility didn’t actually increase the number of treatment beds available, but consolidated existing beds from St. Elizabeth Hospital and NorthKey and developed a precise treatment plan focused specifically on substance abuse and mental health issues.

The facility, which is not yet operating at full capacity, has treated more than 1,000 patients, 30 percent more than expected. CEO Dr. Chris Lockey is proud of the work the center has done but knows that treatment beds alone won’t solve this problem.

“SUN is part of the solution and there is a lot more to be done and really the only way we are going to make a dent in the epidemic is to have the whole community involved and have a coherent coordinated plan,” he says.

He is one of the newest members of the Northern Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, a group that combats the substance abuse epidemic through the development of policies and strategies. The group created the Northern Kentucky Substance Abuse Help-line, authorized deployment of quick response teams in each county and developed a comprehensive education campaign.

“There is a lot happening in the response to opioid addiction in Northern Kentucky including expansion of syringe access exchange programs, naloxone availability, treatment resources, prevention efforts and efforts to better coordinate recovery services,” says Saddler, another new member to the group.

It is the work of the community that is making a real dent in the epidemic according to Moore, who also serves as the co-chair of a national task force examining the country’s opioid epidemic.

“The biggest area where I’ve seen the data change is OD deaths. I think that’s the impact of Narcan and naloxone. It is still increasing but not at the rate that it has been before. It has leveled a bit, and we hope that it is the peak of the graph and that eventually those numbers will drop,” he says.

In the first five months of the year, the Northern Kentucky Health Department distributed 2,003 naloxone kits. Seventy-three lives saved have been reported back from their use.

“I do believe the willingness of first responders to carry naloxone has been a life saver. I know it’s been controversial with some, but if we can save lives that is another day that we might get them into treatment and might change a life,” Moore adds.

That’s why Mary Lu keeps her kits. She stays involved with the recovery community, devoting much of her time to helping those new to recovery, offering rides and advice and friendship. And while she hopes she never has to use her naloxone kits, she is prepared to if someone needs her help. She knows that those who overdose, like her son, can find sobriety and meaningful lives. So long as there is life, there is hope. n

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