Massachusetts fishermen are taking new steps to prevent overdose deaths at sea. The nonprofit health advocacy group The Fishing Partnership is training fishing captains to use the overdose reversal drug naloxone, also known as Narcan.
The organization says it hopes to eventually make the drug a staple in every ship’s medical kit. Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with lobsterman Steve Holler and Fishing Partnership Health Facilitator Debra Kelsey (@fishing_partner) about the scope of the opioid crisis, and their approach to finding solutions.
Holler, on personal experience with overdoses
Steve Holler: “I lost a stepson in 2013. He had succumbed to overdoses, I believe six or seven times, and Narcan did revive him during those episodes. Sadly, we did lose him in 2013.”
On how common it is for someone to die of an overdose at sea
Debra Kelsey: “It’s as common as losing someone at land. The difference at sea is that the first responders, which would be the Coast Guard, aren’t allowed to carry Narcan. So if there is an overdose at sea, that’s a death, that’s a fatal overdose. … You can’t get out to the sea in an ambulance.”
On whether opioid use is worse among the fishing community
DK: “So I would have to say no. It’s throughout the community. In [New Bedford, Massachusetts], for example, there’s overdoses every day, all day long. It’s rampant in our community, in our cities, which includes the industry. Again, the importance on the waterfront is that, if an overdose were to occur at sea, first responders don’t have Narcan.”
On the prevalence of opioids and overdoses in the fishing community
DK: “It’s there, it’s everywhere in our city and in our ports. Not only addicts overdose, and we’re trying to bring that education out to our industry and community. We tell our fishermen, one way of bringing them awareness, ‘It may not be somebody on your vessel, it could be the vessel tied up next to you. It could be the vessel fishing next to you, or it could be the little old lady next door who forgot she took her meds.'”
Holler, on whether he is currently taking pain medication
SH: “I am not now. I have been, I have been for a very long time, degenerative disease, and I was on medication for up to 14 years.”
On the difficulties of working in the fishing industry
SH: “It is very hard. It’s go, go, go. You only have so much time to make money, whether your permit’s allowed to fish at a certain time, or whether it be a weight quota or something like that. They kinda used to call it ‘derby fishing.’ You’ve gotta go, and go when you can get the money. Fishermen are prescribed medications. It can be overprescribed. I can tell you I’ve been on Percocets for 14 years.”
“I just had my arm rebuilt three years ago, tore all the tendons and ligaments out of it, the arm was just hanging there. And it was basically from every day — I’ve been doing this since the age of 14, 40 years. And the doctor jokingly, he says, ‘Every once in a while a car door is gonna fall off, you keep using it that much.'”
Holler, on other people he’s known who have died from opioid use
SH: “Oh my gosh, I’ve gone to so many funerals, so many of my son’s friends. I mean we lost an entire generation. I mean, there was my son, two doors down another son, five doors down another son. They all played on the same baseball team. My son was a pitcher. The other gentleman was a first baseman, the other was a third baseman. But they’re all gone now. And they’ve pretty much all worked on my boat, at one time. It’s a sad, sad… it was just a very, very sad thing.”
On the importance of fishermen receiving safety training
SH: “When we’re out on the boat, the person might not be on our boat, he could be on another boat, he could be on a pleasure boat. But we’re all on radio communication on different channels. If we hear something, of someone, you know, that is in distress — it could be any reason at all — we’ve got pretty major first-aid kits on the boat, through The Fishing Partnership, we are trained how to use them. Narcan, CPR, through The Fishing Partnership. We are all getting trained.
“It’s a sad world we live in where I have a 16-year-old daughter, she will be working with me this year on the boat, she is fully trained in vessel safety through Deb’s organization: firefighting, CPR, how to use an [automated external defibrillator], how to use Narcan. Both my daughters, 14 and 16, were trained in how to use Narcan. We used to joke around, you’d just about cut your finger off. What do you do? You wrap it up with electrical tape, and you keep going. Well, you’re gonna lose that finger when you get in. So now it’s like, ‘OK, let’s get the proper first aid that we need on there, and let’s get you in to save that finger, save that thumb.’ I mean we are the last cowboys, if that’s what you want to call it, but we’re getting a little smarter. Fingers and thumbs and hands and wrists are worth something, but a life is worth so much more. To simply have Narcan in your kit, we as captains on the vessels, we are the first responders on the water.”
On overcoming resistance to the training
DK: “I can honestly tell you that in the beginning, it was a challenge. I did have a captain in New Bedford, we trained his vessel. Reluctantly he agreed to the training. Didn’t think he needed it. We basically tag-teamed him to get him to agree. He said he didn’t have, you know, there was no need for it on his vessel, but was gonna take the training anyways. Three months later, I was reaching out to him regarding another matter and he answered the phone and told me he was on his way in from his trip, and he was like, ‘Deb, I’m on my way in,’ he’s like, ‘I had to use that Narcan that you gave me. I can’t believe it.'”
“That was a true testament there. And that crew member is alive today, because this captain was equipped with education and Narcan. And he said to me, while he was administering the Narcan, that he never once thought about this person being a junkie. All he wanted to do was revive him.”