At the age of 20, Hoover, a Thornton resident, had been an opioid addict for three years. On Independence Day near her hometown of Trumbull, Conn., she was using what she thought was heroin with another person when she became unresponsive. The person Hoover was using with called 911 and then left the scene.
“The next thing I remember, two paramedics were standing above me and the first thing I heard was, ‘she’s back.’”
Emergency protocol in Connecticut stipulates that first responders can administer Narcan to save suspected overdose victims. If the person is still unresponsive after three minutes, paramedics are instructed to administer a second dose. After three more minutes, the person is usually declared dead.
One of the paramedics prepared to declare Hoover dead. The other paramedic, though, thought he saw Hoover blink. A third dose of Narcan saved Hoover.
Once the paramedics transported Hoover to the nearest hospital, Hoover was told her overdose was caused by a lethal dose of fentanyl.
“I didn’t even know what fentanyl was,” Hoover says. “I’m incredibly lucky I lived through that.”
Many others are not so lucky. Since Hoover’s overdose in 2017, fentanyl-related deaths have skyrocketed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the US during a 12-month period from May, 2020, through April, 2021. That’s compared to 78,056 deaths in the previous year. Fentanyl was the primary cause of those deaths.
Illegal use of the drug started its wildfire through Colorado in 2018. That year, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, fentanyl accounted for 11% of drug-related deaths. In 2020, there were 540 fentanyl-related deaths in the state. By 2021, the drug caused 44% of the 1,836 overdose deaths in the state.
Colorado ranks 24th in the US for drug overdose deaths.
“New drugs tend to pop up on the East coast and move slowly westward,” says Andres Guerrero, manager of the Overdose Prevention Unit of Colorado’s Dept. of Public Health and Environment.
“In the last two years, fentanyl has really exploded in Colorado,” Guerrero says. “Unfortunately, fentanyl is not the last drug we’re going to see here. The ability for us to quickly respond will be the key in reducing the number of those overdose deaths.”
In late 2022 Guerrero’s unit was handed a check for $6 million from the state-funded Harm Reduction Grant Fund, to support various prevention-related programs. The state also has a $19.7 million bulk purchase fund which entities can dip into for the purchase of Naloxone, which can quickly reverse an opioid overdose. Guerrero’s team assists schools in obtaining the life-saving drug.
“If schools have Naloxone at their disposal during an overdose event, they can respond to that quickly and potentially save somebody’s life,” Guerrero says.
Guerrero hopes newly-enacted state laws can slow down the fentanyl epidemic. New state laws passed last month classify possession of more than one gram of fentanyl as a felony.
The legislation (HB22-1326) was signed in May and is set to go into effect today, July 1, 2022. It stipulates that a first-time offender can receive up to six months in jail and up to two years of probation. The laws also mandates that county jails must offer medication to treat inmates who are addicts.
Other parts of the legislation include $10 million for emergency treatment services, $600,000 for fentanyl test strip distribution and $5 million for a long-term education campaign.
On June 1, the Colorado State Patrol announced that it already seized more fentanyl pills in the first half of 2022 — 2.08 million pills — than in all of 2021, when 1.66 million were confiscated.
The hidden danger in fentanyl is that it is a blind killer. Drug users usually have no idea they are using it. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse, only 0.007% of an ounce can — and in most cases all but will — cause death.
There are two grades of fentanyl, a synthetic drug made entirely in laboratories. The one grade — the one made in black market labs — comes from a powder that is often mixed with other drugs. The second, legitimate pharmacy grade that is prescribed a legal alternative to morphine, has been in existence from 1968.
In whatever form, fentanyl is 50% more powerful than heroin. The newest trend is that marijuana is sometimes laced with fentanyl.
“It’s as dangerous and scary as you can imagine,” says Danny San Filippo, clinical director at Denver’s Aspen Ridge Recovery. “There are people who may not struggle with addiction. They may not even have a diagnosable substance use disorder, and choose to use cocaine one time in their life. If fentanyl is in that, it doesn’t really care about what you know, or that this person hasn’t really struggled. It’s just a chemical reaction and it is so easy to overdose on it.”
That’s what happened to Mary Hoover. Three months after her overdose, her mother Debbie intervened. “In the beginning of 2017 I had a full ride to college,” says Hoover. “I was going to school. I had a job — all of those things. Suddenly I lost my scholarship (to Southern Connecticut State, in biology), I totaled three cars and was homeless in New Haven.
I was just a shell of a person.
“My mother asked me a handful of times if I were willing to go to treatment,” Hoover says. “Each time I met her with a very hard no.
“One day late in 2017 I was really beaten and broken down, and she asked me one more time. That time I said yes.
“We researched some places, and within a week she was flying with me to Colorado.”
Hoover checked into Aspen Ridge Recovery in Lakewood. One year later she joined the professional staff, and is now manager of recovery support services.
“It is everything, to sit across from somebody and be able to share pieces of my story,” says Hoover. “I know how scary it is to sit in their chair. I tell them ‘I can relate to you. This is how I got through it.’
“I know the same darkness you’ve seen, and here’s how I got out.’”
Hoover is now 25. She is married, eight months pregnant, and excited to embark on motherhood: drug free.
“I didn’t know anything about fentanyl when I overdosed,” says Hoover.
“There have been cases of fentanyl being pressed into Xanax. This is no longer just a problem for drug addicts. It’s a problem for everyone.
“I feel very lucky that I lived through it.”
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