The man in front of me is almost dead. His lips are blue. He isn’t breathing. His eyes are half open and still. His arms fall limply off the stretcher, and he doesn’t flinch as needles are threaded into his veins and his clothes are stripped away. His wife is wailing in the doorway.
His pulse—a barely palpable flutter beneath my fingertips—is the only indication that something might be done. We have only a few seconds to act before the faint, fast rhythm slips away entirely and he is gone. Irreversibly. Irretrievably.
We secure a syringe to his IV, we push the plunger, and we wait.
He coughs, he flails, then screams and kicks. He rips his IV out and tumbles to the floor: wild, naked, and incoherent. He is in agony. But he is alive.
This is Narcan. This is the scene that plays out daily in my emergency department at a community hospital fighting for lives deep in the heart of opiate country. We have only a few tools to combat the overdoses that will take more lives this year than car accidents or guns, and Narcan—the opioid reversal medication also known as Naloxone—is the most effective. A spray up the nose, a shot in the thigh, or a push through an IV and within seconds: a miracle. The dead live. A sin is forgiven. The hopeless receive hope. For a Christian doctor, Narcan looks like grace in a syringe.
As our country slips deeper into an epidemic that President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Thursday, the debate around Narcan for opioid overdoses has surfaced as a unique pro-life issue. While this medication has the power to prevent the majority of opioid deaths, its efficacy relies on it being administered quickly, within minutes, to an overdose victim. But getting it into the hands of those who are most at risk and the first responders that are often nearby has proven difficult, and though it has been proposed as one of the pillars of a national plan to combat the opioid epidemic, its adoption has been slowed by the ever-increasing price of the medication, accessibility to those who need it, and the stigma surrounding opioid use and addiction.
Communities overwhelmed by opioid abuse have proposed limiting the number of times this life-saving medication will be administered by emergency services, forcing the victims to pay for it themselves, or just refusing to carry it altogether. Others, including senators and lawmakers, have asked the question of whether or not saving “drug addicts” is worth the resources, especially as many require multiple resuscitations over the course of their struggle. Still others ask if the knowledge that a rescue medication is nearby increases the risk-taking behavior of opioid addicts, making them more likely to abuse the drugs and worsening the risks to the public. As the tragic ramifications of abuse—like intoxicated drivers, opioid-addicted newborns, and shattered families—incite outrage across the nation, the question has been asked: How many resources should we devote toward a disease that is, at least in part, self-inflicted?.
But as the controversy has increased, so has the response of the church. As we face yet another year of skyrocketing opioid deaths and ask ourselves why we are losing an entire generation when we have the antidote, many Christian organizations—desperate to heal the wounds of their communities—have begun to augment their recovery outreach and relational ministries with Narcan distribution and training. Narcan has become the new compassion ministry.