Starting Hearts, starting conversations: Eagle County nonprofit addresses overdose and related cardiac arrest

Community forum at Beaver Creek chapel talks about solutions to address rise in opioid deaths

Maggie Seldeen, who openly identifies as a former drug user, has become an outspoken advocate for widespread accessibility and education for Naloxone nasal spray, which can reverse an opioid overdose. “We now have the tools that can save lives,” Seldeen said Monday at the Beaver Creek Chapel. “People do not have the option to recover if they aren’t alive anymore.”
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Since its founding in 2010, Eagle County-based nonprofit Starting Hearts has held a focused mission: to save victims of sudden cardiac arrest. Through both advocacy and educational programming, the organization has worked to increase access to lifesaving training and equipment countywide.

Now, community leaders at the helm of Starting Hearts are increasingly concerned that a new cardiac crisis is on Eagle Valley’s doorstep — an opioid overdose.

The American Heart Association characterizes U.S. opioid abuse as a “significant cause” of cardiac arrest and related death among adults aged 25-64. Yet, the intersection of cardiac arrest and overdose is often obscured, as stigma compounds the lack of understanding of how opioid-related death actually occurs.

“When you consider drug overdose, what actually kills the victim is that the overdose causes the victim to come into cardiac arrest,” explained Starting Hearts Executive Director and Board Chairman Alan Himelfarb.

Himelfarb became more aware of the issue of opiates as a cause of cardiac arrest earlier this year while attending a symposium hosted by the Resuscitation Academy in Seattle, Washington. When an event speaker recommended that every home in America should carry a Naloxone nasal spray (a lifesaving drug used to reverse an opioid overdose), he began to consider how Starting Hearts could address the opioid epidemic in Colorado.

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Following national trends, drug overdose rates surged to a state-wide high of 1,477 deaths in Colorado in 2020, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Himelfarb led the charge to expand the nonprofit’s scope of outreach to support those at heightened risk for a cardiac emergency caused by substance abuse. He and Janet Newman, Starting Hearts’ curriculum director and instructor, collaborated to organize the organization’s first community forum on the topic of the opioid epidemic on Monday evening at the Beaver Creek Chapel.

Joe Fasolino, a representative from Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, addressed attendees first, presenting on various resources provided by the wholly-owned subsidiary of Vail Health, including free case management services and substance abuse support groups

Alice Harvey, the community health manager of Eagle County Paramedics, then relayed localized overdose statistics. According to Harvey, in 2021 there was a 50 percent increase in substance-use-related emergency medical service calls in the county. Based on data collected so far this year, she shared an expectation that this increase will be sustained for 2022. 

Maggie Seldeen, the keynote speaker and founder of High Rockies Harm Reduction then took the pulpit. Seldeen, who was raised in Garfield County, shared her perspective on how the opioid epidemic manifests locally. 

“A big part of the problem here is that Aspen and Vail are synonymous across the world with recreation and partying,” she said. “Those partying behaviors can infiltrate the blue-collar communities within these counties, who resort to buying illegal drugs that can be contaminated with fentanyl or other even stronger opioids.”

Seldeen, who openly identifies as a former drug user who is now in sustained recovery, went on to share her path to activism. After losing her mother and other loved ones to overdose, she has dedicated her life to educating others on emergency response to drug-related health crises.

“We now have the tools that can save lives,” Seldeen said Monday. “People do not have the option to recover if they aren’t alive anymore.”

The presentation also included a tutorial on the administration of a Naloxone nasal spray from Seldeen, as well as a demonstration of CPR performed by Mike McGee, former deputy fire chief of Vail Fire Department and lead instructor with Starting Hearts. 

The program concluded with a panel of all featured speakers fielding audience questions. 

According to Himelfarb, Monday’s forum is just one part of a larger effort at Starting Hearts to prevent and respond to overdose-related cardiac arrest in Eagle County. The nonprofit is currently developing informational materials on drug use prevention to be incorporated into programming in schools and other educational venues. 

Additionally, the nonprofit is considering placing Narcan — a widely-used naloxone nasal spray — in its more than 450 defibrillator boxes across Eagle County. While Himelfarb acknowledged that such a move would make the lifesaving drug significantly more accessible in public spaces in the community, he raised the drug’s shelf-life and sensitivity to extreme temperatures as practical concerns.

Starting Hearts has yet to make a final decision on this matter, but Himelfarb confirmed that the organization will continue to evaluate how to best support the community in addressing overdose and related cardiac emergencies.

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