Ryan Hillmer is now nine months sober after 13 years of addiction. But he wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for a safe, legal opioid overdose medication.
Naloxone is available over the counter throughout San Luis Obispo County, and it saved the life of Hillmer on a November night in 2015.
Katie Grainger, lead prevention educator for the county’s Health Agency, said naloxone should be in everyone’s first-aid kit.
“You don’t have to be an opioid user. I’m not an opioid user, but I know opioid users,” she said. “I carry it in case I ever have to administer it, whether my neighbor, a family member, a client or just someone at a Taco Bell bathroom who overdoses and I happen to have the kit on me.”
Opioid deaths have more than doubled in the last decade in SLO County; 36 opioid-related deaths were recorded in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, up from 15 in 2006. That’s in line with both state- and nation-wide trends, with accidental deaths from opioid overdose exceeding even deaths from car collisions across the country, according to the county.
Hillmer, 29, who lives in San Luis Obispo, was almost one of those deaths.
He had been kicked out of the home he shared with his girlfriend and was living on the street. Since he began using marijuana as a teen, Hillmer said he “progressed right up the ladder” to harder drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, the latter of which he primarily used for work. Hillmer said he started using heroin to come down from meth-fueled highs, and the expense of that addiction led him to break up with his girlfriend and become estranged from family and friends.
Every time Hillmer thought he reached bottom, the heroin pulled him down farther.
On that November night in 2015, Hillmer and a woman he knew were in a car parked at Pirate’s Cove; his friend had fallen asleep, and he injected some heroin. Instead of just injecting half, like he intended, he used the entire syringe. At some point, he faded out, his face and body turning blue. That’s when his friend woke and found him.
“It’s a miracle she woke up and found me,” he said.
She rushed Hillmer to the emergency room, where he received the naloxone dose that saved his life.
Naloxone, commonly available under the brand name Narcan, works simply by kicking opioids off the brain’s opioid receptor, allowing the overdose victim to breathe again, Grainger said. It can either be injected or inhaled.
It’s been around since the 1970s, “but it was used mainly by medical professionals,” Grainger said.
By the mid-1990s, non-medical professionals began using the drug and, in the last few years, the California Legislature passed a pair of laws allowing the general public to acquire and administer naloxone.
Grainger said it isn’t a lack of available tools that stands in the way of saving lives. It’s public perception.
“I think the biggest issue to me is reducing stigma (for overdosing),” she said.
While California law largely protects Good Samaritans who call 911 for overdose victims from criminal prosecution, Grainger said some people have trouble condoning the use of naloxone to save lives.
“When I talk about having Narcan, some people think it’s enabling or it’s encouraging relapse,” she said. “To me, all that Narcan enables is another chance at life.”
It was stigma that brought Hillmer to another brush with death. A few months after his overdose, after which he continued to use, Hillmer was hospitalized again — this time for a life-threatening blood infection.
Hillmer said he went to the emergency room and was nearly sent home with a flu diagnosis until he worked up the courage to tell the doctor he’d been using heroin. The reason he nearly didn’t?
“It seems really silly when it’s life or death, but judgment,” he said.
Even then, Hillmer didn’t stop using. It took three arrests in the span of a month, serving more than 20 days in jail, before he finally made the decision to get clean.
“I had 23 days in jail to try to discover what my purpose in life is,” he said.
For now, Hillmer said his purpose is to continue on his path to sobriety while working in the restaurant industry. He said one day, he might pursue motivational speaking.
In part due to naloxone, Hillmer will get that chance.
“I want everyone to know they can get naloxone and keep it with them just in case. It can give someone a second chance like I had,” he said.
Naloxone is available with a prescription, which can be obtained at the County of San Luis Obispo Drug and Alcohol Services, at any CVS or Rite Aid pharmacy in SLO County.
It can also be obtained without a prescription at the following locations:
▪ CVS SLO, 11990 Los Osos Valley Road
▪ CVS Arroyo Grande, 1435 E. Grand Ave.
▪ CVS Nipomo, 610 W. Tefft St.
▪ CVS Paso Robles, 187 Niblick Road.
▪ Cayucos Pharmacy, 72 S. Ocean Ave.
▪ En Soleil Pharmacy in Atascadero, 5735 El Camino Real.
▪ SLO Bangers Syringe Exchange, 2191 Johnson Ave.
Naloxone is free with Medi-Cal and covered fully or in part by most health insurance plans. It is available for free at SLO Bangers.