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00000171-95d3-d2cb-a5f3-9fff6d250000Like many areas in the country, southern Oregon is experiencing what public health officials describe as an epidemic of addiction to heroin and prescription opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin and OxyContin. One symptom of this epidemic has been a sharp rise in deaths by overdose.In this four-part series, JPR reporter Liam Moriarty looks at this problem through the eyes of people on the front lines.

Max’s Mission: One Mother’s Crusade To Put Naloxone Pretty Much Everywhere

Mark Oniffrey
Wikimedia Commons

Naloxone is a drug that quickly reverses an overdose of heroin or other opioid drugs. It’s been used by hospitals and emergency medical workers since the 1970s.

But in recent years -- as the opioid epidemic has spread – many states including Oregon, California and Washington have passed laws making it easier for non-medical people to obtain naloxone and use it in an emergency.

This is the story of an Ashland mother who’s turned her personal tragedy into community action to save lives.

Several dozen people are milling around a meeting room on a recent evening at the headquarters of Allcare Health in Grants Pass. They’ve come to learn about naloxone and, hopefully, get their hands on some.  Julia Pinsky, who organized this meeting, steps to the microphone and introduces her organization.

“Max’s Mission was formed in last November, a small non-profit to bring naloxone to as many people who need it.”

Pinsky formed Max’s Mission a few years after the death of her 25-year-old son. We’ll talk more with Julia later …

Meanwhile, at the meeting, Dr. Kristin Miller – the chief Medical Officer at Siskiyou Community Health – lays out the scope of the opioid epidemic.

“In the US we have about 5 percent of the world’s population,” she says. “We consume 80 percent of the world’s supply of opiate medications.”

In southern Oregon alone, she says …

“Every year, over 1,200 prescriptions are filled for every 1,000 individuals. So, more than one prescription for every man, woman and child.”

Given the ubiquity of legal opioid drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin – plus the related boom in the use of similar street drugs such as heroin – Miller says having the ability to quickly reverse an opioid overdose has become a civic imperative.

“We need to get naloxone out into the community,” she says. “We need to change perceptions, so that people think about it like a seat belt or a fire extinguisher."

Holding community meetings to train everyday people in the use of a powerful drug – and to hand that drug out for free – is kind of an unusual thing to do. Earlier, in her living room at home, Julia Pinsky explained how she came to organize these meetings  … 

“My interest came through having lost our son Max in 2013 from a heroin overdose,” she said.

Pinsky says Max had been struggling for some time with addiction when one afternoon she found him unconscious in her home office. Efforts to revive him failed.

Within a few months of Max’s death, three other young men in Ashland had died of ODs, as well.

In her grief, Pinsky got on the internet. As she researched all she could find about heroin addiction, she found naloxone was increasingly being made available to the public as a front-line antidote for opioid overdoses.

“I saw that laws were changing around the country. They were talking about making it more available, but I didn’t see anything happening here.”

Pinsky allied herself with Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County’s medical director. For several years, Shames has been leading local efforts to combat opioid addiction. With Shames’ help, Pinsky launched her crusade to help put naloxone into the hands of anyone who might need it.

She says families, friends and coworkers of opioid users would all be wise to have the drug in their medicine cabinet, just in case.

“If someone says to me, ‘Well, I don’t know anybody who takes opioids.’ And I say, ‘Well, have you asked anybody?’ Because you start asking and you will be surprised how little distance it is between you and someone you know taking opioids.”

Back at the community meeting in Grants Pass, participants are watching one of several videos that explain how to use naloxone.

Once they’ve listened to the presentations and viewed the videos, participants have earned a certificate that authorizes them to obtain and administer naloxone.

As the new certificate holders line up to get their naloxone kits, I ask Linda Lamoreau of Grants Pass what brought her here tonight.

“I was actually a little skeptical about why we’re giving this to people,” she says. “And with the education I got tonight, I am 100 percent behind it.”

David Vance, also from Grants Pass, says he works with people who use opioids. He says he’s getting naloxone out of a sense of community responsibility.

“I just want to be able to help them save a life.”

By the end of the evening, Julia Pinsky says, her group has given out nearly 35 naloxone kits, worth about $4,500, paid for by donations.

This has been the third community naloxone meeting Max’s Mission has held. Two more are slated for later this spring, in Cave Junction and Medford.

Pinsky says her group’s efforts are expanding, but that the need still far greater.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.