Virginia Tech Rescue Squad, Hokie Wellness partner to fight opioid overdoses
Virginia Tech Rescue Squad members have plenty of superpowers, but they’re well aware being omnipresent isn’t one of them.
As a result, the student-run organization is dedicated to empowering others in emergency response, which, thanks to a new partnership with Hokie Wellness, now includes opioid overdoses.
“We’re great patient advocates when an emergency happens, but we have a larger role when it comes to educating people to help prevent those accidents or respond before we can get there,” said Ana Montoya, the squad’s public outreach lieutenant. “There’s a lot of awareness and education out there about first aid and CPR, but I haven’t really seen opioid overdose response to the same scale. We want to change that.”
Montoya was one of about a dozen members of VT Rescue who spent a recent Saturday morning learning how to teach the REVIVE! Opioid Overdose Emergency Response Training. The course provides basic information about opioid misuse and identifying overdoses as well as a response kit that includes the lifesaving drug Naloxone in the form of FDA-approved Narcan nasal spray.
“First responders are really important, but bystander intervention can be just as important when it comes to saving a life,” said Montoya, who is scheduled to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. “Now we can equip people to do that with opioid overdoses.”
The squad’s training came at a critical time for opioid misuse in Virginia. In July, the Virginia Department of Health’s quarterly report showed fatal drug overdoses as the leading cause of unnatural death in the state, more than gun- and motor vehicle-related deaths combined. Aug. 31 is also International Opioid Overdose Awareness Day.
The teaching session resulted from Montoya connecting with Virginia Tech Recovery Community and Hokie Wellness’ substance misuse prevention coordinator, Annie Chalmers-Williams.
“Two-thirds of fatal overdoes from opioids happen with bystanders present,” Chalmers-Williams said. “Either they don’t know what to do, they don’t recognize the overdose, they don’t have Narcan, they’re too afraid to call for help.”
REVIVE! is just one of multiple courses available through Hokie Wellness and is available to the entire Virginia Tech community. It also is one of countless efforts related to the #VTBetterTogether campaign for mental health.
Chalmers-Williams became one of 17 REVIVE! lay rescuer master trainers in Southwest Virginia last spring, which allows her to certify people to teach the course. She said partnering with VT Rescue was a natural fit because of its members' long-standing commitment to serving the Virginia Tech community.
“They’re already known for hosting great, life-saving trainings, and REVIVE! is just another life-saving training they can now also offer the Virginia Tech community,” Chalmers-Williams said. “The reality is, opioid-linked overdose is an issue that’s everywhere, including Blacksburg, so the more people we can have who are knowledgeable about it and empowered to act, the better.”
Along with VT Rescue, Chalmers-Williams also has certified the peer education team she leads, Impact, to be able to teach the basic REVIVE! course to others.
VT Rescue member Reina Rodriguez said the course offered her a new perspective on both opioids and addiction.
“It was cool the way the program went over it and normalized it,” said Rodriguez, a second-year graduate student studying public health. “It [REVIVE!] made [the information] a little more digestible … and when she [Chalmers-Williams] was talking about deaths per day by overdoses [in the United States], that was a pretty crazy fact.”
Montoya was surprised to learn about the common nature of overdoses, especially when compared to house fires.
“It’s like seven a day [for fires] and like 137 a day for overdoses, and we have all these measures in place to prevent fires, but we don’t implement Narcan everywhere,” Montoya said.
Montoya said VT Rescue plans to help change that and empower more people to act.
“Diminishing anything that stands in the way of bystanders having an impact is really important,” Montoya said.
Some other key takeaways Chalmers-Williams shared with VT Rescue:
Opioid misuse often starts with legal prescriptions
“For most people, overdoses and opioid misuse doesn’t start with going out and trying heroin at parties,” Chalmers-Williams said. “The most common starting point is a legal prescription a doctor gave them.”
Anyone in Virginia can get Narcan
“Virginia has a standing order, which basically works like a prescription for every person in the state,” Chalmers-Williams said. “You can get Naloxone free from local health departments and many community service boards, and you can also pick it up at most pharmacies, though they will likely run it through your insurance or charge a small fee.”
There are legal protections for lay responders
“There’s immunity from civil liability, which protects any person responding to an overdose in good faith from being sued for damages due to ordinary negligence while rendering treatment,” Chalmers-Williams said. “There’s also the safe overdose reporting law that protects the responder, as well as the person who has overdosed, from arrest and/or prosecution in most life-threatening situations when they call 911 for help. There have been a lot of legal efforts made recently to remove any barrier that might prevent a person from seeking help related to an overdose.”
Code of Virginia: § 18.2-251.03.
Virginia Tech’s Student Code of Conduct also encourages Hokies requiring medical assistance for themselves or others as a result of substance use to seek help. Conduct charges against individuals or organizations will not be pursued in most circumstances, according to the Statement on Self-Reporting and Bystander Intervention. For more information, email email@example.com.
Support shouldn’t stop with the first response
“Every time we prevent an overdose, we give people another chance to find recovery. And that’s the whole goal. We want people to find recovery,” Chalmers-Williams said.
She said the Virginia Tech Recovery Community has a robust offering of programming and support available to Hokies.
Other helpful resources: