Now that she’s in recovery, Tiffani King usually stays away from the areas in downtown Salt Lake City that she once frequented as an addict: State Street, Pioneer Park, North Temple and the now-closed homeless shelter on Rio Grande street.
But late last month, King managed to save a man’s life in a place where hers was once slipping away, when she stopped to administer a lifesaving dose of naloxone, an injectable overdose reversal drug, to a man she’d seen convulsing on the ground on State Street near 1900 South.
“He was foaming at the mouth; he was losing all of his color,” she recounted Tuesday during a briefing before the Salt Lake County Council. “And I clearly remember the gentlemen standing around him saying, ‘I hope that you can save him, but we’ve got to go.’”
When emergency medical help arrived, King turned around and came face to face with the person she’d vaguely heard calling 911 behind her: Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.
Wilson, who was on her way home from the county government offices when she saw the man overdosing and stopped to help, has long been an advocate for addressing the effects of opioids on the community. She helped create the county’s opioid task force and made the issue one of her policy platforms during her race last year to fill the Salt Lake County mayor’s seat vacated by former Mayor Ben McAdams when he was elected to Congress.
But, unlike King, the mayor didn’t have naloxone on her that day.
“I don’t know if I could live with the guilt if she hadn’t been there because I would not have been able to save that life,” Wilson told the County Council. “I don’t know what I would have done. Would I have called 911? Yes. Did I? Yes. But I wasn’t in a position” to save his life.
Wilson, who honored King as a “hero” Tuesday for her lifesaving work, pledged to keep naloxone on hand moving forward and to ensure other council members would be better equipped than she was that day.
Ahead of a briefing from the county’s Behavioral Health Services department on how to administer the lifesaving treatment, the mayor’s office handed out naloxone kits to each of the council members.
“Some of you might have people you care about that just had a major surgery: Have Narcan or have naloxone in your home because they could accidentally misuse or intentionally misuse,” King urged council members. “I think the most important thing is these people’s lives and the breath they get to take every day, no matter what situation they’re in.”
More than 76 billion prescription pain pills flooded the country between 2006 and 2012, according to a recent data analysis by The Washington Post based on figures obtained from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Almost 700 million of those pills came into Utah.
From 2001 to 2018, just shy of 6,000 Utahns died from opioid overdoses, according to state data — outpacing deaths from firearms, falls and motor vehicle crashes. In 2017, there were 245 drug overdose deaths in Salt Lake County, according to data provided by the county.
In an effort to address the prevalence of opioids in the community, Behavioral Health Services has distributed three rounds of naloxone kits to community agencies over the past two years with $347,100 in grant money, according to information provided by the county mayor’s office.
Through a partnership with the county health department, the University of Utah, Utah Naloxone and Use Only as Directed, all county libraries have offered Narcan training to their staff, have the treatment on-site at each location and offer naloxone kits to the community. About 1,500 kits have been handed out at each of the 18 branches, according to the county mayor’s office.
The Salt Lake County district attorney’s office has also spent roughly $53,000 on naloxone kits, which have been provided to law enforcement agencies across the county.
Councilman Steve DeBry, who works as police chief for the Unified Police Department’s Millcreek precinct, said those efforts have had a “wonderful” impact on residents as county leaders work to “get a handle” on the nation’s opioid epidemic.
“Every night somewhere in the county, someone is saved with this,” he said. “I kid you not, it is a miracle drug.”
During the briefing, Salt Lake County Council Chairman Max Burdick became emotional as he described the ways his own family has been affected by opioids. One of his daughters was resuscitated with Narcan after having a “major surgery” for which she was prescribed several drugs.
“It was such a terrible, scary moment of trying to get her to wake up and stay awake,” he recalled. “Doctor on the phone, paramedics on the way. I was yelling at her, ‘Stay with us,’ just screaming. To see this administered and see her wake up, it’s a miracle.”
But one of Burdick’s grandsons, who was on a prescription to help with his medical problems, wasn’t so lucky; he went to bed, overdosed, and never woke up.
“So it’s a situation where this would have helped, certainly,” he said. “If it would have been potentially available and he would have been found sooner, he would have [still] been with us.”
The man who overdosed on State Street late last month would likely have met a similar fate had King not been on site to resuscitate him.
Afterward, she said he got into a confrontation with emergency personnel — a common response upon awakening, officials with Behavioral Health Services noted — and he was later arrested.
But to King, “it doesn’t matter if he’s in jail,” she said. “Where he goes after this, he’s alive.”
Naloxone kits can be obtained at many pharmacies without a prescription. Narcan can cost $75 for a kit, which includes two doses. Injectable naloxone costs anywhere from $20 to $40 per dose.
For more details on online training and how to get a kit, visit utahnaloxone.org.