Virginia-based van training targets opioid overdoses

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) – No parent wants the words “in memory of” in front of their child’s name, but Angela Pope hopes a vehicle dedicated to her daughter will save other families from the pain she has endured.

Lauren Pope was 26 when she died after snorting heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid and powerful painkiller. Police told her parents, Angela and Jake Pope of Spotsylvania County, that it appeared someone left her in a bathroom because of the young woman’s position.

Had she been given Narcan, a nasal spray to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, Angela Pope wonders if her firstborn child would still be alive. She often thinks about the end of her daughter’s life, as well as how things changed drastically in her mid-teens.

The once bubbly and busy runner and cheerleader was around 15 when her mother said she fell into the wrong crowd and started using drugs. An unwanted pregnancy and abortion followed, and her mother suspected possible sex trafficking or gang violence. But she just doesn’t know because months would pass without a word from her child.

“I sit and dwell on it,” she said, “and there’s nothing that’s going to change the situation, so I have to try to do something positive with it.”

The popes said they were honored when Zoe Freedom Center, a faith-based recovery program in Spotsylvania, recently launched a mobile harm reduction unit, or “Narcan van,” in memory of Lauren Pope. Lauren was Zoe’s first client, and co-founder Dana Brown helped her get into a recovery program.

After Brown spoke at her funeral, she and her husband, Mark, the center’s co-founder, spoke of a mobile unit that would regularly distribute boxes of Narcan to individuals and businesses. The Browns promised the Popes that he would carry the name Lauren.

The Narcan van made its debut on a recent Saturday as Zoe Freedom Center volunteers gathered in Fredericksburg and toured downtown, handing out goody bags and materials about the center’s free services, including counseling groups and peer support. They also asked people if they would put Narcan in their first aid kits.

Some companies wanted a box for each kit in the building, others declined the offer. The center plans to return downtown, visit hotels along US 1, and set up regular distribution routes and times when it has enough volunteers.

Based on past experience, Dana Brown believes the same divine guidance that helped get Zoe off the ground – a month before the pandemic began – will get their mobile unit on a steady course.

“I feel like we’re going to have enough volunteers to do at least one run once a week, probably within a month,” she said. “We’re excited to be able to respond to needs on a routed, time-based schedule so community members who need our help know when we’re coming.”

And the needs are many, said Sherry Norton-Williams, prevention specialist with the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board. For five years, she directed REVIVE! training on how to recognize and respond to an opioid-related emergency using Narcan, the brand name for the chemical naloxone.

The RACSB offers regular virtual trainings and giveouts twice a month when people who have completed the course can pick up Narcan for free. More than 2,000 people have gone through the program since 2017, many of whom have gone on to train others, and Norton-Williams has noticed an increase in demand for Narcan this year.

In the past, perhaps half of those trained picked up their Narcan from a separate distribution site. This year, more than 8 people trained out of 10 obtained it.

“We’re seeing more lives being lost,” Norton-Williams said, not because there are necessarily more drugs on the street, but because of what’s in them. “It’s about fentanyl being in everything or possibly being in everything. People realize that the medicine cabinet isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s the illicit substance that people get their hands on.

Last year, 81% of fatal overdoses in the Fredericksburg area, from Culpeper to Northern Neck, involved fentanyl, according to the Virginia Department of Health website. The state hasn’t yet released statistics for 2022, but Dana Brown said she’s been hearing reports of an increasing number of overdoses from local police officers.

In his office near Bragg Road, Brown showed a graph from the Journal of American Medical Association, showing the number of deaths involving fentanyl among teenagers. Nationally, 253 young people between the ages of 10 and 19 died in 2019 from a fentanyl overdose. The death toll rose to 680 in 2020 and 884 in 2021.

Brown thinks many of those who overdosed probably thought they were getting something else from a friend, perhaps Adderall or Percocet. Adderall is used to treat hyperactivity, but it has become widely misused by high school and college students who want to spend sleepless nights and prepare for exams or write long-term assignments, according to the US Addiction Centers.

Likewise, Percocet is a common painkiller, but can be deadly when mixed with fentanyl.

“It’s starting to happen more and more,” Dana Brown said. “That’s why (Narcan) is so important. Having it in your first aid kit will give you the only tool you can possibly have to save your child’s life.

Norton-Williams hopes that people who receive Narcan will never need to use the treatment on their loved ones, but she often finds the opposite.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone walk up to a table at an event or take a second dose” because they had already used the first one or it had expired, she said. “I had a gentleman in a training program who overdosed seven times.”

She has trained workers at local shelters, convenience stores, and national parks on how to administer Narcan. The free online course, REVIVE!, lasts about 60 minutes, and Norton–Williams and others at RACSB will provide training for businesses and organizations. Those interested can contact her at 540/940-2325 or [email protected].

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