Speaking to an audience of future pharmacists and doctors, Dr. Ryan Harden displayed a graph in which two lines started far apart, eventually converged and then — in about 2017 — crossed.

That was the point, the physician at Gateway Clinic in Sandstone said, that more people were dying from opioids in the United States — and in Minnesota — than from motor vehicle crashes.

“This is a staggering statistic to me,” said Harden, who also is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus. “This is the world that we’re in right now.”

About 75 students — second-year medical school students and mostly first-year students from the Duluth campus of the College of Pharmacy — were assembled in a large lecture room earlier this week for a short, intense introduction to the crisis and how to use the overdose reversal drug naloxone to save lives.

If the individual is unresponsive but breathing comfortably, they don’t need naloxone, said Dr. Elisabeth Bilden, an emergency department physician and toxicology specialist at Essentia Health. If they’re struggling to breathe but awake, they don’t need naloxone.

“But you gotta do what you gotta do to save a life,” she said. “So if it’s a respiratory issue and (they’re) unresponsive, that’s when you start this.”

The students voluntarily carved the time out of their day, although the workshop will be required of medical students beginning next year, Harden said. They also had the choice of whether to accept a free naloxone kit on their way out. But of the 100 kits brought by Mary McCarthy and Deb Hernandez of the Rural AIDS Action Network, 85 were given out. Some students asked for two kits, and some faculty members also took kits.

Students listen intently as speakers share information during an opioid response workshop Tuesday at UMD. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Students listen intently as speakers share information during an opioid response workshop Tuesday at UMD. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

That included Dr. Peter Nalin, who came to the Duluth campus last year as associate dean for rural medicine from the Indiana University School of Medicine. In Indiana, Nalin had a colleague in Dr. Jerome Adams, then the state’s health commissioner and now the U.S. surgeon general. Adams has made fighting the opioid epidemic one of his top priorities, and as surgeon general issued an advisory urging more Americans to carry naloxone with them.

But this week’s workshop was Nalin’s first opportunity to be trained in naloxone use, he said before the event, and he planned to have naloxone with him from then on.

Medical students Jennifer Thomalla, Mitchell Moe and Leah Larson stopped to talk to a reporter after the presentation, but each planned to pick up a kit on the way out, they said.

“It would be really tragic to come across a scene at some point not having the resources to address it,” said Moe of Montevideo, Minn.

This was the first time the training was offered for medical school students, but pharmacy students had naloxone training opportunities last year. That’s why it was mostly first-year pharmacy students who attended, said Tuyen Nguyen, a fourth-year student who spearheaded last year’s workshops and is back on campus for a few weeks.

One of the first-year students is Lucas Kosobuski, a Superior native who said the opioid crisis resonates with him.

Substance abuse disorder touched his family, Kosobuski said, and he also volunteered for two years at the Rural AIDS Action Network in Duluth. “Working at RAAN I saw the impact.”

Laura Palombi, assistant professor at UMD College of Pharmacy, introduces different forms of naloxone and shares how they are administered during an opioid response workshop at UMD Tuesday. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Laura Palombi, assistant professor at UMD College of Pharmacy, introduces different forms of naloxone and shares how they are administered during an opioid response workshop at UMD Tuesday. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Along with Bilden, Laura Palombi of the College of Pharmacy and Marcia Gurno of the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department led the training, as they have done numerous times in various locations during the past few years.

The students said they appreciated the effort.

“I think this is a life-saving medication that if everybody is trained in it we can actually save lives,” said Thomalla, who is from Big Lake, Minn.

But she particularly appreciated that the presenters talked about dispelling stigma.

“It’s hitting communities disproportionately, I think, places that are hit hard economically,” Thomalla said. “So I’m glad they incorporated that into the topic.”