- In a November TEDWomen talk, Huntington, West Virginia fire chief Jan Rader detailed her city’s approach to fighting the opioid epidemic.
- West Virginia has the country’s highest opioid overdose death rate.
- Huntington opened a clinic specializing in addiction treatment and created a Quick Response Team, whose members visit people who have recently overdosed, offering support.
- In her talk, Rader added that overdoses are down 40% in Cabell County, where Huntington is located.
Addiction to opioids has caused a surge in fatal drug overdoses all across the country. But in West Virginia, the epidemic has proven particularly deadly. The state had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the US in 2014, 2015, and 2016, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In one West Virginia city, however, a woman named Jan Rader has been fighting against that trend.
Rader, a registered nurse and the first female fire chief of Huntington, West Virginia, detailed her city’s revamped approach to the opioid epidemic in a talk presented at the annual TEDWomen conference in November 2018.
Rader, who has been a firefighter for 24 years, said she pursued her nursing degree a decade ago because she sensed the looming crisis of rising opioid use.
“I decided to increase my medical knowledge … because it [be]came clear that the next big threat facing not only my city but other cities around the country was not the one-and-done disaster,” she said in the talk. “The next big disaster in my city was and is the long, debilitating, and lethal disaster known as opioid addiction.”
And, as the opioid epidemic worsened, Rader realized that the traditional way of responding to overdoses wasn’t creating lasting change. While first responders can save a life in the short term by reversing opioid overdoses with the drug Naloxone, she explained, reviving an individual isn’t enough to treat SUD in the long term.
“[First responders] want to swoop in do our job and leave feeling satisfied that we’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. But that just doesn’t happen when we’re dealing with somebody with substance use disorder,” she said in the talk. “We leave feeling frustrated and useless; we deal with the same people over and over again with no positive outcome. At some point, I realized that it is up to us as first responders to find better ways to deal with those that are suffering.”
Huntington’s new approach includes an addiction clinic and a Quick Response Team that offers help after overdoses
As part of a push to better serve people suffering from SUD, Rader has assisted with the creation of new city-wide programs, CBS News reported on January 2. Rader outlined these programs in her TED talk.
First, there’s the Quick Response Team, launched in 2017, according to Rader.
“The team consists of a paramedic, a police officer, somebody in the recovery community, and somebody in the faith community,” she said in the talk. “As a team, they go out and visit people who have overdosed within 72 hours of that resuscitation. They talk, they listen, they build a rapport with that patient, and they offer them treatment options.”
So far, 30% of people who’ve interfaced with this team have accepted some form of help, she added.
Second, in 2018, Huntington opened PROACT, a specialty clinic where individuals are quickly assessed by addiction specialists.
“It gives first responders a place to either take or refer our patients who are no longer in life-threatening situations that have refused to go to the hospital,” Rader said in the talk.
Finally, the city has started a self-care program for first responders.
“More and more, first responders are experiencing compassion fatigue and PTSD,” Rader said in the talk. “It is not uncommon for the average firefighter in Huntington to deal with or see up to five young deaths per month … So this much-needed program … will give them more mental health options that they desperately need. We now have yoga classes in fire stations. We’ve also provided on duty massages, which is fabulous.”
Rader’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, she was featured in the Emmy-winning Netflix documentary Heroin(e), and in 2018, she was named to TIME magazine’s list of the year’s 100 most influential people.
“If every city had a chief like Jan Rader, our country would be a better place,” West Virginia’s governor, Joe Manchin, wrote in his TIME blurb about Rader.
Overdoses have dropped 40% across the county
As she concluded the talk, Rader said that in Cabell County, where Huntington is located, overdoses have decreased by 40%.
In December, a spokesperson for the city of Huntington confirmed to INSIDER that, according to emergency medical services data, non-fatal overdoses in Cabell County were down 41% for the first 11 months of 2018, compared to the same time period in 2017.
That statistic held steady through the start of the new year. In total, there were 1,089 non-fatal overdoses reported in the county in 2018, compared to 1,831 in 2017, Huntington’s Herald-Dispatch reported on January 3. That’s 742 fewer overdoses — a drop of just over 40%.
It’s not clear whether any of Huntington’s new programs played a direct role in this decline. Dr. Michael Kilkenny, director of the county’s health department, told the Herald-Dispatch it was likely the result of multiple factors in combination.
Still, in her talk, Rader expressed optimism over her community’s renewed response to fighting opioid addiction.
“We in Huntington, West Virginia are showing the rest of the country that change can happen, that there is hope dealing with this epidemic,” she said.
Watch her full remarks from the TEDWomen conference below:
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-662-4357) to get confidential, free, 24/7 support for individuals and family members facing substance use disorders. The service offers referrals to treatment facilities, support groups, and more.
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