Twenty-one years after their brother’s life ended in a Salt Lake City basement after a heroin overdose, Jennifer and Sam Plumb rarely leave their homes without something tucked in their backpacks in his memory: Naloxone kits that they distribute to drug users and at-risk youth in the hope of preventing them from meeting the same fate as 22-year-old Andy Plumb.
With Utah fifth in the nation in heroin overdose deaths (an average of 10 people die weekly), the Plumbs are working to get Naloxone — an antidote for opioid overdose – into the hands of any Utahn who wants it at no cost.
“When somebody overdoses, they can go about four minutes without oxygen before they usually die or have brain damage,” Jennifer, a 46-year-old Salt Lake City physician, tells PEOPLE. “We realize that we’re not going to make the heroin epidemic go away, but we can do something to help keep people alive in the meantime. You can’t get better if you’re dead.”
Since July 2015, when Jennifer and her brother, Sam, started Utah Naloxone, they have distributed more than 5,000 free Naloxone rescue kits, paid for with donations to their nonprofit.
Last year, inspired by their efforts and statistics showing that Naloxone saves lives (973 overdose reversals have been reported to Utah Naloxone), the Utah State Legislature passed a bill enabling all Utah officers to carry the antidote, since they are usually the first to arrive at the scene of an overdose.
“Jen and Sam have trained hundreds of police officers, providers at addiction and recovery centers, local health clinics in rural areas and people in the homeless population on how to identify an overdose and administer Naloxone,” says Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, the bill’s sponsor. “They are truly heroes in our community – smart, caring and dedicated to the work that is saving the lives of sons, daughters, parents, friends and neighbors.”
One of the first Utah agencies to embrace the Naloxone program was the Washington City Police Department, where Chief Jim Keith saw the drug save a young woman’s life one day after his officers were trained.
“We started the program on a Wednesday and had our first deployment on a Thursday,” Keith tells PEOPLE. “It was pretty impressive. I’m so grateful that Jennifer and Sam took the time to engage this program for our community. Opioid and heroin addiction is an ugly disease that impacts many lives in a very negative way, and the Plumbs’ efforts are ultimately saving lives.”
Sam, 30, who now works as program manager for the nonprofit, regularly hits the streets with a bagful of kits, distributing them to homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts. He was only 8 when he learned that his older brother, a bright and gregarious young man nicknamed “The Eternal Kid,” had been left for dead in the basement house he rented after he overdosed and his friends panicked, fleeing with the evidence.
“I knew that Andy had a problem — I was always included in the family meetings when he was in treatment,” Sam tells PEOPLE. “It was normalized for me at a young age that this was a disease that affected all kinds of people. As a result, I always had a non-judgmental attitude toward those who were addicted.”
After Andy’s death, one of Jennifer’s friends, a paramedic, told her, “Wow, I sure wish there had been some Naloxone there.”
“For more than 20 years, that stuck with me,” she says. “Would his friends have been able to save him, or if they’d called 911, would paramedics have been able to save him? I always wondered.”
In 2016, after attending a family support group for people who have lost loved ones to opioid overdoses, she and Sam were moved by parents’ heartbreaking stories. “We knew right then it was time to take some action,” she says.
Initially, when they started Utah Naloxone, they wondered if they would encounter resistance from people who assumed they were promoting heroin use. Instead, the opposite happened, says Jennifer.
“Almost universally, everyone was supportive and said, ‘Yes, let’s do something,'” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s a national epidemic. Too many people know what it’s like to lose a loved one to a heroin overdose.”
Salt Lake City’s Theo Haskins says she would have lost her 31-year-old son in 2015 if she hadn’t picked up a Naloxone kit from Jennifer two weeks earlier.
“I walked into the living room one day and found my son unconscious and blue, slumped over on the couch,” Haskins tells PEOPLE. “I called 911, then administered the (antidote) while on the phone with them. My son went to rehab that same night and has been in recovery ever since. He and and I both very grateful to Jennifer and Sam for his second chance in life.”
In the right place at the right time, Jennifer personally saved a woman’s life last year, when she saw a woman lying on the sidewalk while driving through downtown Salt Lake City.
“I got out and rushed over, and noticed that her skin was turning blue and the pupils in her eyes were really small, which is a sign of an opioid overdose,” she says. “So I went to my trunk, got out some Naloxone and injected her. A few minutes later, she was sitting up, wondering why everybody was gathered around. It was an astounding moment to save someone’s life.”
Although nobody could save their brother, the Plumbs frequently gather at a plum tree planted in his memory at a local park where drug dealers and users often hang out. There, they hand out kits, hoping they might save somebody else’s brother or uncle, husband or friend.
“By the time somebody gets this far into addiction, they’ve burned up most of the resources they have,” says Sam. “So it means a lot to them to hear, ‘You’re valued. Your life matters. Please take care.'”