Survivor succeeds with county Narcan policy
SUBLETTE COUNTY – Two years ago on an early August morning, Warren Phillips of Big Piney was lying in his F150 truck, unconscious, unresponsive and basically dead, after overdosing on an opiate cocktail mixed with meth.
On Aug. 6, 2021, a passerby saw Phillips’ truck in the sagebrush off Highway 351, checked on him and began CPR, which kept him alive until deputies and Sublette EMS responded. Their first response was for a “heart event” but nothing changed.
“The ambulance crew didn’t immediately go to an overdose until they found a bottle of my pills,” Phillips, now 30, was told later.
An EMT then administered a dose of Narcan, a nasal spray that almost immediately blocks the effects of an opiate overdose. It took a second dose to bring Phillips back to consciousness, and his first thought was how to hide his drugs from deputies.
That didn’t happen. Detectives tested several white pills and powder that came back positive for Buprenorphine, an opioid used to treat dependence, and meth. Phillips had two previous possession convictions before Judge Curt Haws in Sublette County Circuit Court so the new misdemeanors were enhanced to felonies.
He faced years in prison.
As he moved through 9th District Court, he decided to change his pleas. One essential element would be successfully completing Sublette County Treatment Court’s program. Phillips graduated this summer with the goal to make a difference by saving one person’s life.
Face to face
At the Sublette County Board of Commissioners’ Aug. 1 meeting, Phillips and Treatment Court director Cassie Crumpton walked up and sat at the big table. His goal – to have these commissioners hear his story and his request for a policy to make Narcan available throughout county buildings.
“I did drugs for a long time,” he said. “I was extremely addicted to painkillers.”
His accident, overdose, arrest and Treatment Court – “exactly what I needed – brought him before them as a clean and sober young man. His community graduation project with the help of the Sublette Prevention Council and Public Health is to speak to public entities about Narcan policies.
Phillips told respectful commissioners Doug Vickrey, Tom Noble, Sam White and Mack Bradley that if Sublette EMS “had not had Narcan, I would have died.”
Sheriff KC Lehr told him only four patrol cars had Narcan; he asked if the sheriff would put Narcan in all vehicles and train employees. It is a very simple spray to use with no effects if the person has no opioids, including fentanyl, in their system. Lehr did that in a month, Phillips said.
“It will save lives; it definitely will,” he told commissioners. “Maybe not next week but it definitely will.”
The county saw five overdoses in 2022 and of everyone in Sublette County on prescriptions, about 1,000 or almost 56 percent of every 100 citizens’ are for narcotic painkillers, he said, referring to a 2018 state survey.
(Sublette Prevention Council’s Trisha Scott told the Roundup that she requested new numbers and in 2019, the rate was 54.3 per 100 and in 2020, 29 per 100 prescriptions.)
Phillips was on a longtime prescribed medication program; an out-of-town doctor sent him 180 pills every month that eventually lasted about four days. He injured himself badly as a kid riding a dirt bike and sustained other injuries as an athlete, he said.
Human Resources manager Andrea Jean gave commissioners her county policy draft for “Sublette County to participate in an optional program in which stock opiate antagonist, available at designated locations, is available for administration by trained personnel to a customer, staff member, or visitor whom the trained personnel believes is experiencing an opioid overdose.”
Commissioners would designate storage locations and the prevention officer (newly hired Rebecca Crowe) would monitor expiration dates. Staff training would be provided on a voluntary basis.
Jean said Public Health Officer Janna Lee can offer free training for volunteers.
Crumpton said there is some public stigma attached to Narcan and opiate addiction but with growing fentanyl use, “you never can be sure” if someone ingested it. The best people to administer it “are those who feel comfortable with it.”
“It really is for anyone to use,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be law enforcement or a firefighter.”
White asked fellow commissioners if they wanted to approve the policy, which they did unanimously.
“It takes moxie for someone to come here and present yourself like this,” Vickrey told Phillips.
“It’s great to come back, to live a real normal actual life,” Phillips said.
Phillips is reaching his goal to make Narcan available throughout the county – entities willing to participate are the Pinedale Aquatic Center, Sublette Ice Arena, the Sublette County Courthouse and Sublette County Sheriff’s Office including the jail. The Marbleton-Big Piney and Pinedale clinics use an IV version; ambulances carry the nasal version.
He’s aiming for Sublette County Unified Fire, the Sublette County Extension Office, 9th District Court, the county fairgrounds transfer station and landfill.
Later, Phillips told the Roundup he’d considered speaking to school kids about his addiction but even middle school is likely too late. He became an addict when he was 11, he said, after a friend’s uncle plopped down a purple Crown Royal bag full of painkillers.
“It set the tone for my whole life,” he said. “I always felt like that was exactly what I was missing in life.”
Even as a student athlete “role model,” Phillips said he found trouble and appeared before Judge Curt Haws. “He once called me a contradiction, in court.”
In Treatment Court, Haws’ support with Crumpton and friends meant a lot to Phillips, feeling that the judge had seen the worst and hoped for the best. Other supporters to this day are his family and boss Scott Cheeney, who have never given up on him.
Phillips has learned that he likely suffered a traumatic brain injury in his dirt bike accident and could be bipolar with attention deficit disorder. Those can be controlled, he said.
However, he’s facing a new hurdle with painkillers right now.
Phillips is undergoing treatment for Stage III melanoma and will be have surgeries on his arm, elbow and chest, including skin grafts.
He and his father have “a plan.”
“My family has really stuck with me,” Phillips said. “My father will be my support system throughout surgery,” which he knows, will be a fine line between feeling pain – and dealing with it.