Once per month, at the corner of Broadway and Fourth Street SE, Winona State University-Rochester nursing students hand out new leases on life in the form of a syringe.
It holds the drug naloxone, better known as Narcan — the overdose-stopper.
Prof. Amber Fiedler, an assistant nursing professor at WSU-R, has spearheaded the “Save a Life: Prevent Opioid Overdose” program, which runs every second Thursday of the month. She says the free program is part of a larger goal inside her university and in the health care field at large: stymying the opioid epidemic, which has become one of the leading causes of accidental death in America.
“It’s so silent, it’s so prevalent, but it’s so hidden, and there’s so much fear of getting arrested that people are just overdosing and dying — and nothing’s even said,” says Fiedler. “A few years ago, I decided we should try to let the community know that Narcan is accessible, and it can save lives.”
The idea of educating the public on how to use Narcan is not new, according to Fiedler — nursing students had been running Narcan training programs as part of their community outreach programs in years past, but found trouble reaching the audiences they wanted to reach.
“We knew we could access the population that is struggling, perhaps silently, in a better way,” says Fiedler.
Fiedler needed to find another community partner to spread the message — and in the summer of 2020, she found a fellow Warrior in Regina Mustafa, founder of the Community Interfaith Dialogue on Islam (CIDI).
After hearing that two Somali-American youth in Rochester overdosed on opioids, Mustafa was inspired to bring information on Narcan to the underserved communities she works with. Fiedler’s program, she says, was a perfect match.
“That moment was a calling point for me, to do what I could to give people the tools to reduce harm,” says Mustafa, a licensed alcohol and drug addiction counselor (LADC). “I reached out to Dr. Mitch Moore [head of the Addiction Counseling certificate at WSU-R], asking ‘hey, how could we get some Narcan?’ He said, ‘I just happen to be sitting on 150 kits,’ connected me with Dr. Fiedler, and we were off from there.”
Since September, WSU-R has partnered with CIDI through Zoom, using CIDI’s platform to educate the public on how to administer Narcan in an overdose situation — then distributing kits outside their downtown campus after the seminar ends.
Hundreds of kits have been given out since the first Zoom meeting, with WSU-R students handling both education and distribution. It’s a part the students’ required coursework — every nursing student has to complete some sort of community service related to health care — but the broader goal of the program is to turn more regular residents into “citizen nurses.”
If preventative action can be taken on common, chronic ailments, says Fiedler, reactive care won’t be needed as frequently — hopefully changing the way health care is provided in the community.
“Once someone has a problem, they go to the hospital,” says Fiedler. “That’s where most nurses have been. We are now recognizing, especially with the pandemic, that we need to prevent illnesses, and most chronic illnesses and diseases can be prevented. So for our students, we want them to get out there and be exposed to the social determinants of health.”
Hurdles still remain for Fiedler, Mustafa and company, though — notably, the public stigma around opioid use. Many people struggling with opioid addiction don’t feel comfortable reaching out for help, says Mustafa, out of fear of being punished under the law.
That’s why the whole program — from the Zoom meeting to the distribution of Narcan — is completely anonymous (all photos for this story were captured with permission). Ask for Narcan, and WSU-R’s nurses will give you a kit. It’s that simple.
“We really want to be mindful of people that are dealing with this stigma, and make it as easy as possible for them,” says Mustafa. “It’s purely about harm reduction.”
As the “Save a Life” program completes six successful months, Fiedler and Mustafa are expanding their roles as distributors and educators — furthering WSU-R’s commitment to create better nurses and sustain a healthier community. By giving the general public the tools to save lives, Fiedler says, people in Rochester that are struggling in silence are more likely to get a second chance.
“You’re giving someone another day to make a different choice,” said Fiedler. “We all make bad choices, we all have poor coping mechanisms, so it’s about that harm reduction concept. I’m not telling you you should use it, but if you overdose, here’s a way to make sure you have a chance to start over.”