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Brush with heroin's effects changed NKU student

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Posted at 9:29 AM, Feb 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-18 09:29:20-05

Sharp screams rang out like sirens from her bathroom.

Through the glass doors of the shower, Kristie Blanchet watched her sister-in-law’s eyes widen in agony with each drop of water that struck her skin.

Desperate for a place to stay, the woman had arrived at Blanchet’s house after two years of living only for heroin.

Her eyes were empty.

Her hair was matted.

She smelled like she hadn’t showered in months.

“I put her in the shower, and I turned the water on, and I looked at her face, and I saw the fear of death like I had never seen in anybody in my entire life,” Blanchet said. “And it was at that point that I realized, this is not what she wants. She is not choosing this. This is choosing her right now.

“This is controlling her decisions.”

Blanchet recalled this moment as one of the most painful and eye-opening experiences of her life.

In that instant, the then 37-year-old decided to pursue a degree in social work at NKU in 2011. Her studies led her and classmate Jason Merrick to develop a training program to educate law enforcement officials on how to handle overdose situations.

Now, both Blanchet and Merrick are in NKU’s master’s degree program, conducting weekly demonstrations for police officers and first responders on how to administer Naloxone, a drug used to reverse a heroin overdose. They also go over the proper handling of syringes and how to prevent the transmission of Hepatitis C and other blood-borne illnesses.

Based on the experiences she faced with her sister-in-law, Blanchet also helps individuals living with addiction in finding treatment.

“I sat down, and I tried to figure out where we could send her, what we could do, what the options were and I couldn’t find anything,” Blanchet said. “And all I could think to myself was, ‘Holy crap, I’m sober, and I can’t figure this out. How is somebody that is in active addiction supposed to be able to navigate this? There’s no way.’”

A Start In Social Work

Blanchet said she used to be quiet in class, but she found her voice when she landed an internship through the Heroin Impact Response Task Force, an organization of about 90 individuals representing agencies that are working to alleviate the region’s problem with heroin.

Through this internship she teamed with Merrick to develop a training program to educate law enforcement officers on how to administer Naloxone and how to avoid accidental needle sticks.

Merrick said he had been working on the proposal to train law enforcement officials since 2013, two years before he and Blanchet partnered to make the project happen.

With the help of the Heroin Impact Response Task Force and Coordinator Jim Thaxton, Blanchet and Merrick received $88,000 so they could help equip police officers and first responders with Naloxone, protective gloves, sharps containers and evidence tubes.  

James Taylor, an NKU lecturer in social work, worked with Blanchet and Merrick when they completed their project. He said their work was unique because it provided much more than individual care.

“Kristie was a marvelous student,” Taylor said. “The one thing I would say about her is that she is extremely passionate about what she does. That passion really shines through in her work, which is advocacy.”

In addition to her work within the social work program, Blanchet serves as the chairwoman of Northern Kentucky People Advocating Recovery, an organization that strives to bridge the gap to recovery through education and training.

Lisa Ruschman, Jim Thaxton and Kristie Blanchet (left to right) at the United to Face Addiction Rally in Washington. The rally was in October. Photo provided by Kristie Blanchet.

“This isn’t about me,” Blanchet said. “This is about every single person that is in the throes of addiction, and getting them to a place where they are ready to step into recovery. For me, it’s about helping in any way I possibly can.”

Naloxone Training

Blanchet walked briskly down the hallway of NKU’s Landrum Academic Center despite the large trunk clunking behind her carrying a mannequin, Naloxone kits and pamphlets.

She stood in front of a packed classroom and pulled a clear device from her bag, a cone at one end and a plunger apparatus at the other. Inside the syringe-like device is Naloxone. It can be injected, but it is more commonly used in the form of a nasal spray.

In an overdose, Naloxone kicks heroin out of the receptors of the brain and rapidly restores breathing.

Blanchet placed the cone inside the nostril of the mannequin.

“Once you get that put in, head still tilted back,” Blanchet said, her attention divided between the mannequin and directing the class. “You’ve got (the Naloxone in one nostril, you’re going to make a really good seal there. Half of the medication on one side, half of the medication in the other side.”

Blanchet gently pushed on the plunger as she reminded the class to continue rescue breathing for the person.

Blanchet explained that she began conducting Naloxone trainings in March 2015, coinciding with the passage of Senate Bill 192. This legislation allows Kentucky law enforcement officers to carry and administer Naloxone.

The bill also protects the individual who has overdosed from criminal charges under the Good Samaritan provision.

Blanchet estimates she has trained more than 40 law enforcement agencies in the area in less than a year.

The now 42-year-old full-time student and mother of six conducts these demonstrations at least once a week with police officers, nurses, mothers and fathers and students at NKU.  

“You hate to say that you enjoy what you’re doing, especially in such a tragic situation, but we really do enjoy what we do,” Blanchet said. “Because we know that even if we get this kit into the hands of one person and it saves one life, we’ve made a huge difference. That’s one more opportunity for them to get into treatment.”

Moving Forward But Remaining The Same

With Blanchet’s guidance, her sister-in-law has been sober for four years. She has a full-time job as a supervisor at a restaurant Downtown, and she is getting ready to purchase her first house.

Blanchet will graduate in May with a master’s degree in social work, and although she will no longer practice advocacy through the social work program, she expects to do even more within the community following graduation.

She plans to keep teaching people how to administer Naloxone through Northern Kentucky People Advocating Recovery and helping individuals find treatment facilities.

“I also like the advocacy part of things and being able to go and fight for things that I feel like we need for our community to help fight this epidemic,” Blanchet said. “And, you know, there may be a day where we get a handle on heroin, but we know that coming right behind it there is going to be something else.

“We’re always going to be fighting this battle. To be able to speak for those that can’t find their voice is definitely something that I want to do until we can empower them to find their own.”

Abby Anstead is a journalism student at Northern Kentucky University. This article was originally published in The Northerner, NKU’s student newspaper and website.