Kathy Hernandez needed only a few minutes to turn a ho-hum trip to the grocery store into a life-saving mission.
Moments from leaving with her groceries, she watched in horror as a nearby man crumpled to the ground — his lips and fingertips turning blue while a woman beside him announced he was overdosing on heroin.
Hernandez pulled a nasal spray from her purse and revived him with just a couple of quick puffs.
“I’m always like ‘Please work, please work,’” Hernandez said. “So far, it’s worked every time.”
The nasal spray, called naloxone, has become the go-to lifesaver in recent years for people overdosing on prescription opioid painkillers or heroin.
Across the Pikes Peak region, the nonprofit AspenPointe is working to distribute as many free opioid antidote packages as possible to stem the tide of overdose deaths that has gripped the region for years.
This month, a federal grant passed down through the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health was renewed for another two years.
The nonprofit distributed slightly more than 3,000 packages over the last couple of years. And at least 26 of them have been used to save lives, said Lorrie Urbaniak, the nonprofit’s manager of managed care.
“It’s a great thing — it’s a great service,” Urbaniak said.
The naloxone packages are available by calling Urbaniak at 719-314-2520 or emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The effort comes as the death toll from the nation’s opioid epidemic continues to rise, including in Colorado. The state recorded 560 opioid-related deaths in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Ninety-two were in El Paso County.
They include deaths from prescription painkillers — such as tramadol, oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl — as well as their illicit cousin, heroin.
All of them suppress the body’s ability to breathe. But naloxone blocks receptors in the brain that are affected by opioids — almost miraculously punching someone out of an overdose and helping them regain the ability to breathe long enough to get to an emergency room.
Across the state, more than $2.1 million was spent through April 30 handing out naloxone funded by the same federal grant. A new, two-year grant that began May 1 dedicates an additional $1.5 million for the project.
Statewide, 28,256 naloxone kits — which each include two doses — have been distributed since August 2017, according to a state human services spokeswoman. They have been used to reverse at least 1,222 overdoses.
Each person who receives a two-dose package of naloxone must undergo a short training session that can last as little as 10 minutes. For example, anyone administering the drug should first spray a dose into one nostril, wait a few minutes, and then spray a second dose up the other nostril, in case the first was blocked.
Most importantly, anyone administering naloxone must immediately call 911. The antidote doesn’t last forever — just long enough to get someone to a hospital.
The antidote kits are especially important for relatives and friends of drug users, as well as people in jobs that interact routinely with drug users. But AspenPointe is trying to get out as many as possible — even to people who don’t use drugs or who don’t know someone who does.
“You just don’t know what can happen and where,” Hernandez said.
“Honestly, I think that if people don’t have it and they don’t have the ability to get it, people die. They don’t have the chance to get into recovery.”
It’s a risk Hernandez, 48, knows all too well.
For decades, she used nearly every drug imaginable, including heroin, and she lost several of her friends to overdoses.
She sobered up four years ago, and she now focuses her time on helping others walk that same path. As a substance use disorder recovery coordinator for AspenPointe, she leads naloxone training sessions across the Pikes Peak region.
Usually, she speaks from experience.
In addition to the grocery store incident, she’s used naloxone two other times on friends and acquaintances. One of the people she saved still struggles with addiction, while another is several months into recovery — enrolled in therapy and using buprenorphine, a prescription drug that helps opioid users manage their cravings.
As for the person she saved in that north Colorado Springs King Soopers, she only hopes they won’t need another dose anytime soon.
Hernandez received an anonymous letter after saving that person’s life, which thanked her for having the antidote that day.
She shudders to think what would have happened if she didn’t have it close by.
“As much stigma as there is out there, people deserve the chance to get into recovery, no matter where they’re at in their addiction,” Hernandez said. “They deserve that chance.”