Unintentional prescription opioid and drug overdose deaths by year: 1999-2012
Unintentional prescription opioid and drug overdose deaths by year: 1999-2012 Data & graph courtesy NC DHHS, Injury Prevention and Control Branch

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<p>As deaths from narcotic overdose in North Carolina climb, public health officials, activists, police and others are strategizing how to reduce that number.

By Rose Hoban

Terri Nowiski knew her son Aaron had a drug problem.

But she also believed he was strong enough to make it.

Christopher Aaron Nowiski served two tours in Iraq and came back home with PTSD. He died of a heroin overdose in September 2011. Photo courtesy LCPL Janos Lutz Live to Tell Foundation

Aaron had wanted to serve, wanted to be in the Army. He did two tours of duty in Iraq, surviving roadside bombs and combat. He came home with PTSD. He got hooked on the narcotics after a dental procedure.

Eventually, he turned down offers from the Army to go to West Point. He left the Army.

Aaron had a dark side. At the Overdose Prevention Summit held this week at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Friday Center for Continuing Education, Terri read from her daughter Angela’s journal about him to several hundred people, who listened in rapt attention.

“He’s had trouble sleeping ever since getting out of the Army. He needed to get help, and he thought he could do it on his own,” Terri read. “I know it was hard for him to close his eyes and sleep without seeing devastation. He was in a war. He saw things people should never experience.

“I know he was always on edge unless he was drinking or high.”

Aaron used prescription drugs, and then heroin. Then he got clean. Then he wasn’t. He was working on earning a bachelor’s degree at Cape Fear Community College, living in Wilmington. He was making all A’s and was on the dean’s list, even as he was still using narcotics.

Then, on Sept. 1, 2011, he was dead. Overdosed on heroin.

“He cheated death, and got second chances, and still couldn’t quit using,” Angela wrote.

Too many deaths

When he died, Christopher Aaron Nowiski was working with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, helping others get access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse narcotic overdose in seconds.

NCHRC head Robert Childs said Nowiski was “passionate” about harm reduction.

Unintentional prescription opioid and drug overdose deaths by year: 1999-2012 Data & graph courtesy NC DHHS, Injury Prevention and Control Branch

Nonetheless, Nowiski became one of the more than 76 people who died from a heroin overdose in 2011, on the leading edge of a growing epidemic of fatal overdoses from the drug.

As prescription drug overdose deaths dropped in the past three years, deaths from heroin overdose have climbed. And that increase is part of the reason the Injury and Violence Prevention Branch of the North Carolina Division of Public Health convened the summit this week.

“There seems to be a tipping point, where a lot of agencies have realized it’s an important issue,” said the Violence Prevention Branch’s head, Scott Proescholdbell.

“Four years ago, we could have made this for free and we would have had 25, maybe 30 people in a room,” he said of Tuesday’s meeting, which drew several hundred. Heroin overdose is “affecting communities now in so many ways that I think everyone is kind of mobilized around this effort.”

Those people included health care workers, drug-treatment professionals, health department officials, researchers and pharmacists.

New partners

One of the newest, and most significant, partners in the effort to reduce deaths from overdose has been law enforcement, Proescholdbell said.

In the past, police and sheriffs were mostly concerned with arresting people who were caught using drugs. Now members of 16 police forces around North Carolina are carrying naloxone that they can administer when they encounter users who have overdosed.

Danyeal Emory would like that number to increase to include her force: the Gaston County Police Department.

“It’s not all about the handcuffs,” Emory said.

Gaston County has had the third-highest number of heroin overdose deaths in North Carolina, with a total of 66 deaths between 1999 and 2013.

“Nothing’s going to change unless we try to change it,” Emory said. “It’s not just about putting people into jail.”

Emory lost a cousin to heroin overdose, and she said several other members of her force have been close to someone who died.

“I believe that everyone makes mistakes, and how do we prevent those mistakes?” she asked. “You have people using opiates, or heroin.

“Let’s close that revolving door and see if we can make referrals, and see if we can get them out there into the community and get referred to the right places.”

The Harm Reduction Coalition’s Tessie Castillo said the enthusiastic participation of law enforcement in helping drop the number of deaths has been a pleasant surprise.

Castillo said getting the law enforcement community involved in the effort has helped her organization gain traction in the legislature. Police support contributed to the passage of a Good Samaritan bill that shields a person from prosecution if they make an emergency call because someone with them has overdosed.

Rep. John Faircloth (R-High Point), a former sheriff, has sponsored and championed some of the harm-reduction bills in the legislature.

The legislature has also passed bills that decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia if a person declares it as they’re being searched by police.

Emory said she’s prepared to do what it takes to get her department on board with carrying naloxone and participating more in harm-reduction activities.

“Addiction can happen to anybody,” she said. It could happen to Aaron Nowiski, it could happen to her cousin.

“We want to do something to help,” Emory said.

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