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Written by Tessie Castillo

Few experiences are more painful than the sudden passing of a family member. For Chad Sanders, a nurse in Durham, North Carolina, the pain is sharp and fresh as the seven-year anniversary of his sister’s death approaches this November. Chad lost his little sister, 19-year-old Shelly Sanders, to a drug overdose in 2005. He remembers her as a beautiful, spontaneous young woman who loved adventure, travel, dancing, and helping others. She died in her student dorm room in Asheville amidst piles of books and clothes and study guides for exams she’d never take. The most painful part of this loss, other than the fact that he’ll never see her again, is knowing that Shelly’s death was preventable.

Chad admits his sister struggled at times with drug addiction and depression. “Her life was chaotic, but beautiful,” he explains. “Shelly’s joy and pain were always in the same spot.” Her struggle included periods of sobriety, hope, and occasional relapse into the darkness.  

The night of her death, Shelly and a friend were using drugs in her dorm room. When she became unresponsive from a strong dose of heroin, the friend panicked. He’d recently been released from jail on parole and feared that a 911 call could lead to his arrest. So instead of calling for help, he went to sleep. By morning, Shelly had passed.

Unfortunately, her friend’s cowardly actions are typical. Most drug overdoses occur in the presence of another person, but most witnesses do not call 911 for fear of criminal repercussions for drug possession. Some try to revive the victim with ice or cold showers. Others wait and hope that the crisis will pass. Many people die.

Some states, most recently Florida, have passed 911 Good Samaritan laws to prevent overdose fatalities. Though the laws vary from state to state, they generally grant immunity from drug possession or criminal charges to people who call 911 to save a life. Hundreds of college campuses across the U.S. have similar policies, which have been proven successful in encouraging people to call for emergency services and in avoiding preventable death. North Carolina does not have 911 Good Samaritan laws on its books, and needless deaths continue to occur at a rate of about 1000 per year.

911 Good Samaritan laws are just one step to prevent the deaths of young people like Shelly, people with their whole lives ahead of them and much to offer to the world. Other strategies include increasing the availability of Narcan, a medication that blocks opiate receptors to the brain and reverses overdose from opiates, such as heroin or most painkillers. Currently people need a prescription to carry Narcan, and difficulty acquiring a prescription restricts public access to the drug.

“If I could change one overdose policy in North Carolina…I think Narcan being available over the counter would be ideal…especially on college campuses,” says Chad. “If someone is allergic to bee stings they have easy access to an EpiPen, but if people overdose, the medicine is not [readily] available…because of stigma…that’s not a good excuse.”

In addition to Good Samaritan laws and increasing access to Narcan, education about overdose and the signs of overdose is important to prevention, especially among the friends and family of people who use drugs and within the medical community.

“Medical professionals should have more of an understanding of the medicines they prescribe and who they are prescribing them to,” says Chad. “If [providers] do write prescriptions, they should educate [the patients] about the risks and what to do in case of an overdose.”

Chad hopes that Shelly’s death can create awareness of the need to change the laws governing overdose and emergency services in North Carolina.

“[911 Good Samaritan laws] could have prevented my sister’s death. I know if she were still alive she would want to advocate not only for herself, but even for the friend that left her,” says Chad. “Today is my first step to advocate for a vulnerable population that is stigmatized…and not completely understood.”

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition and community partners are advocating for the passage of 911 Good Samaritan laws, greater access to Narcan, and community overdose education in our state. We remember Shelly, not for how she died but for the beautiful person that she was. Her life was full of meaning and her death will not be in vain.

Excerpt from Shelly’s writings:

Protect yourself but do not be afraid to help...there is hope for everyone...Even those who seem to have a dead soul and cold heart.

Be honest, be kind, be caring and love yourself.....but do not be conceited and do things out of obligation.

Be kind to everyone and make other people feel good about themselves.

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