Saving Lives

North Dakota’s Peer Support Specialist naloxone training program makes an impact.

When Jean Dukarski accepted a box of naloxone nasal spray offered during one of the sessions of North Dakota’s Peer Support Specialist (PSS) training program, she didn’t expect she’d be using it to save a life so soon.

“I am so grateful that when they did the demonstration at the training that they offered [a box of nasal spray] to me as well,” Dukarski said. “It not only saved one person’s life, it changed the mindset all of my employees and may save others in the future.”

Naloxone is the generic name for the medication used to block the effects of opioids. Marketed as under the brand name Narcan, it is increasingly being distributed to emergency responders and other health care providers around North Dakota and can combat opioid overdose within minutes of administration.

Dukarski was actually one of the trainers from the Appalachian Consulting Group assisting North Dakota with developing its PSS training program. The program is a Behavioral Health Workforce Development Project. The Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences was contracted by the North Dakota Department of Human Services to develop peer support and a Behavioral Health Workforce plan.

Since January 2018, eleven people have been trained as PSS trainers. Through August, the state already had sponsored four PSS trainings across North Dakota. A total of 112 people, most of whom came from rural areas, have earned PSS certification.

After completing the training program and earning certification, peer support specialists can use their experiences of recovery from addiction and/or mental illness to help others going through the recovery process. That can involve sharing personal experiences to engage peers in their recovery and advocating for them when the need arises; facilitating peer support groups; helping those in recovery navigate community resources, such as employment assistance, housing, and education; and working with the individuals’ care teams to develop plans to help them meet their personal goals and avoid relapse.

Julie Flaten of Park River, N.D., participated in the training program in Grand Forks. As a young mother struggling with addiction, she didn’t have peer support in her journey through recovery.

“I know what it feels like to be put down,” she said.

Flaten wants to be an advocate and support for others, so they don’t feel as alone as she once did. She said it also helps her on her own journey to realize just how far she’s come.

Toward the end of the PSS training, naloxone is distributed to those who want it. After the training session, Dukarski took a box and brought it back to her “day job,” where she serves as the program director for a peer-run agency in Michigan.

“That is where the incident took place,” she said. “We had been discussing getting it for our agency, but many of the employees were concerned about it and felt it wasn’t something we needed. I gave it to my employee that I felt would be most willing and confident about having it and using it. We did the online training and talked about how we don’t want to think we’ll need it, but this way we have it on hand.

“On May 21, an individual who attends our center passed out and was barely breathing. The person began to turn blue. My employee went to her office and grabbed the Narcan. She administered both doses before the person started breathing again. When EMS arrived, they said that there was no doubt that the person would not have survived without it.”

The incident changed the minds of those who had doubted it necessary to keep the naloxone around.

“The sense of relief experienced by all of my staff cannot be overstated,” Dukarski said. “Having what we needed on hand, which actually saved this person’s life, has had a lasting impact as well. The same employees that were so afraid of having it on hand and in denial of the possibility of needing it, now each have the nasal spray in their desk drawer. Seeing it save a life has pushed away all of those other concerns.

“I still hope that we never need it again, but it is good to know if the situation arises, we have what we need.”

The peer support specialists going through training also appreciate that they are learning skills they need to help others. They know how tough recovery is—they’ve lived it. They hope the challenges they’ve faced and skills they’ve learned will help make the journey for others easier.

“I want to be able to help other people,” said Debra Camperud of Grand Forks. “This isn’t the end. There’s always tomorrow.”

For her part, Dukarski said North Dakota’s PSS Training Program is definitely on the right track.

“North Dakota is doing an amazing job of rolling out its Peer Specialist Training Program,” Dukarski said. “Beyond just the naloxone piece, this program will save lives.”

By Brenda Haugen