UND Today

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UND student, firefighter named Public Health Champion

Senior Miranda Olson recognized by Grand Forks City Council for her work establishing new Narcan distribution program

Miranda Olson has been with Grand Forks Fire Department since 2015, but enrolled in UND’s Public Health Education degree program to broaden her skillset. Submitted photo.

As a firefighter with the Grand Forks Fire Department, Miranda Olson often finds herself to be one of the first people on the scenes of an incident.

Qualified as emergency medical technicians, Olson and her crew will respond to 9 -1-1, regardless of whether a fire is involved

In Grand Forks, as across most of the country, those calls are increasingly tied to opioid overdoses. Whether caused by heroin, fentanyl or prescription pills, the Associated Press reported that drug related deaths jumped nearly 50% in North Dakota from the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, through 2020.

That report, which cited lawmakers attempting to intervene in the crisis, included a quote that particularly illuminated the issue:

“’There just wasn’t the access for family members and friends to potentially save a life administering Narcan when they did have an overdose,’ said Pamela Sagness, the head of the Behavioral Health Division at the Department of Human Services.”

This is exactly what Olson, a UND senior studying public health education, has addressed by starting a Narcan Leave Behind program in Grand Forks. This spring, in recognition of her efforts, Olson received a 2022 Public Health Champion Award from Grand Forks Public Health.

“I wanted to get more on the preventative side of things, rather than be in a reactive mindset with the opioid crisis,” Olson said. “It’s the issue that led me to the public health education degree more than anything else.”

Archival image.

Empowering prevention

The goal of the Narcan Leave Behind program is to bring life-saving medications to the source of drug overdose incidents.

As first responders, firefighters are able to target populations who will be more likely to use Narcan – the brand name for naloxone medication, which can rapidly reverse the effects of opioid overdose.

“These programs are becoming more common, especially on the East Coast,” said Olson, who’s been with the fire department since 2015. “And Grand Forks has had access to Narcan for quite a few years now, through pharmacies and the syringe service program. But we saw a gap.”

Under this new program, first responders such as Olson are able to deliver Narcan to bystanders of opioid-related incidents and educate them on its use, giving people the power to prevent future overdoses in friends or family members.

And the education is simple: Put the nozzle of the Narcan nasal-spray device in one nostril, then push a button to deliver a single dose.

“The most harmful effect of an overdose is respiratory depression,” Olson said. “The longer someone is unable to breathe, the worse their outcome can be.

“Getting Narcan into the hands of bystanders allows for early administration, and hopefully a better outcome for the person that has overdosed.”

Public health in action

Olson, through her years of responding to emergency situations, has had her perspective changed by pursuing a degree at UND. Focusing on public health education has shown her the differences between reacting to tragedy and working on preventive measures to address those tragedies before they happen.

In order to earn her degree, Olson had to find internship experience. This led her to working with Grand Forks Public Health since last September; and for Olson, that created a link between response and prevention when considering local efforts to combat opioid abuse.

By October, she started working with Michael Dulitz, Grand Forks’ opioid response project coordinator, to develop a Narcan Leave Behind-type program. Then, by early March, Grand Forks Fire Department was equipped with Narcan for distribution.

“They’re really the unseen heroes in a lot of things that happen,” said Olson about public health experts. “Through my internship, I’ve learned a lot about what they do – it’s small things that we don’t see.”

We don’t see them, Olson suggests, because the efforts are working. For example, restaurant inspections behind the scenes can prevent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in the community.

“That’s kind of the opposite of a fire department, because firefighters respond to a disaster in progress, or the aftermath,” she said. “It can be easy to overlook public health efforts and the preventative side, from that perspective.”

Since Grand Forks Fire Department is first on the scenes for so many calls, and doesn’t transport emergency patients, Chief Gary Lorenz didn’t see many downsides to taking on a Narcan distribution program. City of Grand Forks image.

Sensible service

According to Dulitz, it was Olson’s experience in combination with her coursework that brought a long-desired program across the finish line.

“Miranda has made a tremendous contribution to our opioid response work through leading the Naloxone Leave Behind program at Grand Forks Fire Department,” Dulitz said. “Her work on this project while she is a student at UND is an excellent example of the mutual benefits we have between the University and the community.”

Those who work in emergency services are likely well-aware, but working day-long shifts throughout the week does not make it easy to appear on campus for classes. Olson has been completing her program online and asynchronously to make her education possible while employed. It was this atypical schedule that also led to working on a project tied to her work at the fire department.

“I wanted a well-rounded public health experience through my internship,” said Olson, who said she’s also worked with environmental health inspections, immunizations and even graphic design tasks for the department. “But my unusual schedule gave me the flexibility to work on this new program.”

From the perspective of the Grand Forks Fire Department, Chief Gary Lorenz remarked that it was an easy decision to support Olson’s ambitions.

“We’re in the business of protecting lives,” Lorenz told UND Today. “Without many downsides, this ‘leave behind’ program was easy to support.”

At least 70% of the fire department’s call volume is for medical assistance, Lorenz added. With stations around the city, firefighters are often first to render aid. Also, the fire department isn’t a transporting agency. That means first responders can often remain on the scene to talk with bystanders, often friends and family members, to explain the program and educate them on naloxone use.

“It makes sense for us to be the ones to provide the service,” Lorenz said. “Obviously, my hope is that we can make a difference in someone’s life, save a life or give them the help they need to get some form of recovery.”

Firefighter, student and Public Health Champion

For her work in developing Grand Forks’ version of a Narcan Leave Behind program, Olson’s colleagues at the Fire Department – including Chief Lorenz – nominated her for the city’s Public Health Champion Award for 2022.

In winning the award, and accepting it in front of the Grand Forks City Council last month, Olson had mixed emotions.

As nice as it was to be recognized and celebrated for helping first responders change and save lives in the community, Olson insisted she doesn’t do things for accolades.

“I did this because I’m interested in it, and I want to help people,” Olson said. “So while it was honorable and very humbling, obviously getting the award wasn’t my intent and I wasn’t even aware of it beforehand.

“But it felt really good to be nominated by my peers within the Fire Department, to be recognized for the work I’ve been doing, because every single member of the Department is part of this program too. It wouldn’t be what it is without them.”

Moreover, Olson said her attending UND for the public health education program is what made it all happen in the first place.

Everything she did from conceptualization to pitching to implementation was informed by her coursework, she said.

“What I have been able to learn, even in my spring semester courses, has made for a more effective program and implementation process,” Olson said. “Also, having my professors as resources was awesome.”

Every step of the way, Olson was able to consult her professors and mentors at UND either for advice or encouragement.

“They’re the reason why these connections and the ability to start this program even happened,” Olson remarked. “Getting my foot in the door with Public Health, being an intern, was because they knew what I was looking for.”