Posted: Sat, Apr. 7, 2012, 3:00 AM
I would have been dead
By Whitney Englander
EDITOR’S NOTE: Whitney Englander fell out of a tree in her native Oregon
when she was 12 years old, suffering a severe concussion that led to
blinding migraines controlled by powerful painkillers. An attempt to wean
herself from prescription narcotics after college backfired. She ended up
managing the pain with street drugs. In 2004, she overdosed on heroin.
“If my boyfriend had not had naloxone I would have died in an abandoned
warehouse,” Englander, 32, said in an interview. The experience started her
on a path to recovery.
She wrote the following commentary after a United Nations organization
endorsed a resolution supporting the use of naloxone by medical personnel to
reverse opiate overdoses, which is the standard of care in the United
States. The UN resolution does not address the use of naloxone by lay people
trained in community programs, which is the the focus of a Food and Drug
Administration workshop on April 12.
My family does not have to face every holiday, every birthday, every joyous
occasion with the heartache of having lost a child, a sister - me. My family
was spared a lifetime of regrets, questions and the unimaginable pain of
losing a part of themselves. Because I survived a drug overdose.
At a March meeting in Vienna, Austria, the member states of the United
Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) came to unanimous consensus to
pass a sweeping overdose prevention resolution with the potential to affect
millions of lives worldwide. The resolution urges countries to incorporate
overdose prevention strategies into their national drug policies and to
adopt the standard of care proven to reduce death by opioid overdose. Most
importantly, the resolution affirms the urgent need to address a global
epidemic that is, in most cases, preventable.
The emotion in the room was palpable as the resolution was being passed. I
held each breath as member states debated a few punctuation marks, a few
words, and then suddenly, the resolution passed.
It is unthinkable that in some parts of the world the medication naloxone,
which safely and dependably reverses the deadly effects of opioid overdose,
is not available to those whose lives depend on it. Whether the medication
is withheld because of misinformation, lack of education, or at worst,
because of the belief that some lives aren’t worth saving, the results are
the same. Without naloxone, people die when they could have been saved.
I happen to be one of those people. There was a time when my life may have
seemed disposable, when others would have thought me not worth saving. Today
I am proud to be a woman in long-term recovery. What that means for me is
that I have not felt the need for drink or drugs for almost seven years. I
am the mother of a precious baby boy, a wife, a daughter, an active
community member, and a public health advocate. I have had the honor to
volunteer with multiple charities, work as a public servant, and pay taxes.
But the only reason I am able to do this is because eight years ago, someone
I was using drugs with had naloxone. Had a fellow drug user not had the tool
on hand to revive me, there is a strong likelihood that my breathing would
not have been restored, my heart would have stopped, and I would have died
in an abandoned warehouse at the age of 24.
My experience is not unique. A recent article published by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported over 10,000 reversals like
mine in the United States, where naloxone was administered by non-medical
bystanders witnessing an overdose. Naloxone has been used for decades in
operating rooms and emergency rooms and by paramedics. Politics should not
stand in the way of safe and effective medication that saves lives, but
sadly it often does when the lives of drug users are concerned.
The great triumph of the UN’s overdose resolution was the ease and lack of
controversy in which it was passed. I am proud of the international
community for what it achieved in Vienna - a commitment to preserving human
Whitney Englander is the government relations manager for the Harm Reduction
Coalition and lives in Washington, D.C.