College senior Riley Sullivan often carries a vial of the drug naloxone in his backpack, in a pocket next to his pens and pencils.
He has done this for years, long before he was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. Once, while volunteering at a homeless encampment in his home state of Michigan, he used it to save a man’s life.
“He was using drugs with somebody else, and they did not have naloxone,” Sullivan says. “This guy came out screaming, asking if anyone had some. And I did.”
Naloxone is the antidote to an opioid overdose. Sullivan took a syringe of injectable naloxone from the backpack he was carrying, walked into the tent and loaded it with a vial of medicine.
“I injected it through his pants, into the front of his thigh,” Sullivan recalled. Then he performed rescue breathing on the man. “And luckily he made it.”
Today, Sullivan has a $15,000 supply of injectable naloxone in his closet at his off-campus apartment in Chapel Hill. He and two of his classmates have become unexpected distributors of the drug in this college town where several students have recently died from opioids.
The deaths are largely unknown to the campus community, but they were discussed at a recent public meeting of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. The university’s director of student wellness Dean Blackburn led the presentation.
“I want to share a shocking statistic with you, that I hope you find shocking. It is for me. In the last 20 months, we have lost three active students and one young alum to fentanyl poisoning,” Blackburn said. “And I use that term specifically; not ‘overdose’ because our students and alum were not using fentanyl.”
“They were using other substances that were laced with fentanyl, and they did not know that. And the result of that poisoning was their death and our loss,” he added.