County presents legislators awards for saving lives

January 21, 2016

Rep. Jennifer Williamson at Thursday's board meeting.

Multnomah County Commissioners on Thursday formally thanked state Reps. Jennifer Williamson and Shemia Fagan for working on laws to curb fatal drug overdoses.

The Multnomah County Health Department nominated the two legislators for the Oregon Public Health Association’s Policy Champion award for sponsoring the Good Samaritan law, which allows people to call 911 without fear of being prosecuted for possessing drugs.

On Thursday, the board convening as the Board of Health, presented the Champion Awards. Haven Wheelock of Outside In also presented them with a framed thank you cards from drug users whose lives had been touched.

“Reps. Fagan and Williamson have passed legislation that save lives,’’ said Chair Deborah Kafoury.

More than two people die of overdoses from pain pills and heroin a week in Multnomah County and ambulances respond to more than a dozen other overdoses, said Dr. Paul Lewis, Multnomah County Health Officer.

“Even though there is no single policy or silver bullet to prevent the individual, family, community, and societal harms from legal and illegal drugs and alcohol, there is progress,’’ Lewis said.

Williamson and Fagan were key in making Oregon the 33rd state with a Good Samaritan law as the chief sponsors of Senate Bill 839. They testified passionately for the bill in committee and carried it to the House floor. Representative Williamson was also a sponsor of Senate Bill 384 in 2013, the Naloxone bill.

In the 2013 legislative session, Oregon law changed to allow lay-people to possess and administer Naloxone, the “Lazarus drug” that awakens overdose victims from a near fatal sleep, said Lewis.

Rep. Shemia Fagan

Lewis said in the first full year after this law passed, Multnomah County saw an unprecedented 30 percent decrease in fatal heroin overdoses but  our public health heroes knew there was more to be done. “They understood that if bystanders to an overdose are worried about calling  911, then neither Naloxone nor first responders would arrive in time.”  

Haven Wheelock said just last week, a client described calling 911 for help for a friend who was experiencing an overdose -- a step he would have never taken previously.

Williamson thanked the board and said she began working on the issue after her mother accidentally overdosed after surgery.

Fagan repeated that thanks and in an exchange that drew tears from commissioners,  told how her mother was a heroin addict much of her life.

Fagan said one day, her mother finally overdosed on heroin and lost consciousness, but her partner was too afraid to call for help. A relative who had stopped by to return a spatula from the couple realized the crisis and called for an ambulance. Fagan said her mother survived and entered recovery. She has since been drug-free and healthy, able to enjoy her family and life in Oregon.

“People always wonder, ‘who are these people?’’’ Fagan said. “They are somebody’s brother, sister, and in my case, my mom- and worth saving.’’

Commissioner Loretta Smith revealed her own father had overdosed on heroin at one point, and was too afraid to ever call for help.

“You’re right,’’ she said. “They are somebody’s somebody.’’