THE DRUG CRISIS - Making a Difference: One Life at a Time

Making a Difference: One Life at a Time
By: Joel E. Gordon

“We as a community came together and broke down the silos, rolled up our sleeves and did what was necessary to move us forward.” – Jan Rader

West Virginia’s first female fire chief, Huntington’s Jan Rader, is making a big impact on the fight against the drug and opioid epidemic. In 2017, Cabell County, West Virginia, the county in which Huntington resides, with a population of 95,000, had 1,831 overdoses and 183 overdose deaths.

"This epidemic is far from over, but each and every one of us has a part to play in this epidemic. Just by listening and being kind to somebody, you have the ability to make a dent, a difference in their lives," Rader said in her TED Talk, which was filmed in November 2018 and has gotten over one million views so far.

In her TED Talk, she tells how she has been a firefighter for 24 years and in 2008, she earned her Associate Degree in Nursing after it became clear to her that the next big threat was not a “one and done emergency where you can ride in like the cavalry” but the deadly problem of drug and opioid addiction. Rader contends that first responders have had to redefine their job to be less like the cavalry and do more to save a life by helping to rebuild that life. "Somebody suffering from substance use disorder or addiction is actually a fragile person," Rader said that what they are dealing with is a brain disorder that changes the way a person thinks and convinces them they don’t have a problem. "They are hopeless, and the way we treat them can make their situation better or worse. … So we need to treat them with kindness and compassion and show them that they are a good person and that they do deserve to get better, because they can."

Due to Rader’s plan of action after a terrible year in 2017, new cases of hepatitis B and C are down 60 percent; overdoses in the community are down by 40 percent and overdose deaths are down 50 percent. Several new programs have contributed to these positive results.

  • Harm Reduction Program. “The Harm Reduction Program has been instrumental in those numbers going down,” Rader noted. This program provided first responders with naloxone. The program also provides training and free naloxone for families and friends of those suffering from substance abuse disorder. “A lot of people in the community have had their lives saved not just by first responders, but also by friends and family,” Rader reported.

  • Quick Response Team. Another community program is a grant-supported Quick Response Team (QRT). This program employs a team approach to visit, within 72 hours, those who have survived an overdose and to offer services. “The team is made up of a paramedic, someone from the recovery community, an undercover police officer and also someone from the faith community,” Rader explained. “We’ve found that has been extremely helpful.” About 30 percent of those contacted immediately accept help; the remainder continue to be regularly contacted by the team.

  • Free-standing treatment facility. A third new solution is a free-standing treatment facility where people can be assessed and triaged. First responders can directly refer patients to this centrally located facility at the initial point of contact.

Besides helping community members deal with addiction issues, these new programs also help the caregivers. “First responders are so frustrated,” Rader observed. “We deal with the same people over and over, and then we find them dead. We’re built to help people. These new tools empower first responders to take action.”

Rader is committed to helping fire department members manage the stress and pressure they face, especially associated with the opioid crisis. This year, the city was awarded a Mayor’s Challenge Grant, which provided seed money to create a prototype program for firefighter wellness and self-care. The department has since been awarded a much larger Bloomberg grant to keep the program going for at least the next three years.

“This will be huge, because PTSD, compassion fatigue, mental health with first responders, these things are just as stigmatized as the opioid crisis,” Rader said. The program includes education, classes on strategies like mindfulness and yoga, massage and an embedded mental health counselor for the police and fire departments.

Rader's work fighting the opioid epidemic was featured in the Emmy-winning Netflix documentary, "Heroin(e)," and her work has been rewarded with a place on the 2018 Time 100 list of Most Influential People.

“This epidemic is far from over,” she cautioned “In Huntington, we are showing the rest of the country … that there is hope in this epidemic.”

To see Rader’s TED Talk go to: