Local Politics

Family: NC's Good Samaritan law can save lives

Posted December 5, 2015 2:19 p.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2015 10:53 a.m. EST

Shelly Sanders was just 19 when she overdosed on heroin.

The Lumberton, N.C., native was not alone when she shot up in her dorm room for the last time.

But the friend who was with her when her breathing slowed chose not to call 911 immediately.

“They both used that night. He woke up and found her unresponsive and left. I don’t know if he thought she was dead," Shelly’s brother, Chad Sanders, said before stopping short and looking away, scratching his head.

Sanders said Shelly’s companion had been recently incarcerated and was afraid of being arrested again, so he left. Twelve hours later, he anonymously tipped off 911 operators, but by the time help arrived, Shelly had died.

North Carolina now has a law that could have saved Shelly’s life.

The Good Samaritan Law was designed to remove the fear that discourages people from calling 911 in drug- and alcohol-related emergencies.

“The Good Samaritan Law means it’s OK to call 911 for a drug overdose. You won’t be prosecuted for small amounts of drugs or paraphernalia or underage drinking,” said Tessie Castillo, spokesperson for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.

It took effect on April 9, 2013, just four months after the coalition began advocating for it, Castillo said.

“We were able to pass it, honestly, without a lot of opposition. Legislators really see that this is a huge problem,” she said.

Castillo said preliminary results of a statewide survey by NCHRC indicate 88 percent of people said the law makes them feel more comfortable calling 911.

“If it saves one life, it’s been a success,” said George Erwin Jr., executive director of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.

Erwin said law enforcement organizations like the NCACP advocated for the law too.

“My dad always told me, ‘Son, just do the right thing.’ This is all about doing the right thing,” he said. “Do the responsible thing and call. You’re not going to be in trouble. If anything we’ll say thank you.

Naloxone access and other Good Samaritan provisions

A key component of the Good Samaritan Law is easing access to naloxone, a medicine that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.

Naloxone has been around since the 1960s, but the first program to make it available to the general population didn’t come until 1996.

Since then, more than 25,000 overdose reversals have been reported to the CDC.

It took non-medical professionals in North Carolina 17 additional years to gain access to the drug.

“Before, you used to have to go to the doctor to get the prescription for it,” Castillo said. “But now [prescriptions] are available under what’s called a standing order – thanks to that law – which means that someone like me, who’s not a doctor, can distribute it to people at risk of a drug overdose.”

Castillo said NCHRC has given out 14,000 naloxone kits since then, each containing a prescription, two syringes and two doses of naloxone in small 10 milliliter vials with orange caps. By Castillo’s count, the kits have saved 1,022 people in North Carolina.

“Naloxone is really, really safe, and really effective and it’s free. If you want a naloxone kit, you just have to call us,” she said “We’ll come out and train you on how to use it. We’ll give you as many as you need.”

Erwin said police officers everywhere should have naloxone.

“I’ve heard from various chiefs that by having naloxone access they’re able to save some people,” he said.

In August 2014, New York granted state schools a total of $27,000 to purchase naloxone kits and train campus police officers on how to administer the drug.

Sanders said he thinks naloxone should be more readily available on college campuses, especially public schools like the one Shelly attended.

“You would think on a college campus you could call and get help,” he said. “It’s like having a EpiPen for people with allergies and bee stings.”

CVS announced in September that it would sell naloxone over the counter in 14 states, but that list does not include North Carolina.

“Over 44,000 people die from accidental drug overdoses every year in the United States and most of those deaths are from opioids,” said Tom Davis, vice president of pharmacy professional practices at CVS, in a statement. “By providing access to this medication in our pharmacies without a prescription in more states, we can help save lives.”

Though many changes have come in the past two years, Castillo said NCHRC’s work is far from complete.

She said North Carolina’s laws are more comprehensive than most of the 32 states with Good Samaritan provisions – “in the top 75 percent” – but that as state legislators learn what is effective, the laws reveal room for improvements.

An additional provision came this August, which extended protections for people on probation and parole, like the man Shelly was with the night she died.

“That could have saved my sister’s life. It makes me excited that it’s saving lives now,” Sanders said. “It brings up very joyful kind of feelings and also very sad feelings.”

Castillo said it was simply an oversight that the provision was not included in the 2013 law.

“Later on we started hearing back from people – ‘I’m still not comfortable calling because I have parole or I’m on probation,’” she said.

A key deficiency of North Carolina’s law, Castillo said, is that a witness can still be arrested and charged – just not prosecuted.

“That was something that we fought very hard this year to put into the law, and we were unsuccessful,” she said.

But Erwin, who retired as sheriff of Henderson County in 2006, said it's unlikely an officer would arrest someone who could not be charged.

“Really, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Why would you arrest them if they can’t be prosecuted?” he said.

Erwin said he hasn’t heard of anyone trying to prosecute a person who was protected by the laws.

‘Always Chad and Shelly’

This November will mark 10 years since Shelly’s death, but Sanders’ memory of her is as vivid as ever.

“It’s really the mundane memories that are grand,” Sanders said. “When life changes you hold on to those.”

Born less than two years apart, the siblings were close all their lives.

“We were always at the pool, all summer,” Sanders recalled. “It wasn’t like, “Where’s Chad?” or, ‘Where’s Shelly?’ but, ‘Where’s Chad and Shelly?’ Always Chad and Shelly.”

Sanders said Shelly was popular, athletic and smart. She loved people and travel and dancing. When she was a junior in high school, she enrolled in a Durham school for the academically gifted.

He was shocked to find out she was doing heroin, a drug she turned to after being prescribed painkillers after a high school knee surgery.

“She had a lot of good things going for her. It sucks that she was robbed,” he said. “Kids experiment, you know. Everybody’s made choices they’ve regretted. But not everybody dies from those choices.”

The last memory Sanders has of Shelly is a phone conversation the two had about a week before her death.

“I was in nursing school, struggling that semester. She just called me up to check on me,” he recalled. “It seemed routine to say ‘I love you,’ but it’s really significant now.”

Sanders, now 31, has lived in Durham for several years.

He said he moved to the city partly because of how much Shelly loved it.

“Even in her death and how tragically that happened, there’s hope for others that came from it,” he said. “And I think that’s Shelly’s spirit.”

Sanders said he got involved with NCHRC about four years ago and talking about his sister’s death has gotten easier with time. He has become increasingly more active and now goes to the legislature when it’s time to push for changes.

He seeks to spread the word about the protections the Good Samaritan Law provides.

“College students especially need to be aware of this law,” Sanders said.

“Call for help. Call anonymously. Make up a name. I don’t care. You could save someone’s life.”

Mary Helen Moore is a student in the University of North Carolina reporting (print) department.

C.B. Cotton, who produced the video report, is a student in the University of North Carolina broadcast journalism department.

Both are part of the UNC Media Hub and are Stembler Scholars.