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When Chris Hale’s best friend died of an overdose, the shock brought new life to Hale.

Hale, 26, of Rockvale found his friend deceased Oct. 11 and called the Sheriff’s Office. Patrol Lt. Will Holton, who coordinated Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh’s new Sheriff’s new Strategies and Tactics for Opioid Prevention Unit, talked with Hale, who had used drugs for eight years. Hale agreed to try rehabilitation.

Care coordinator Erica Phemister of the Tennessee Save of Life First Responders’ grant arranged for Hale to enter Mirror Lake Recovery Center. He had previously stopped using drugs but started again when his stepfather died. He spent 36 days in rehabilitation for drug use.

“Once I got clean this time, all emotions I kept away and feelings showed back up,” Hale said. “Thank God I was in rehab at the time because there’s no telling what I would have done.”

Hale’s friend was one of 26 people who died from drug overdoses and 113 people who overdosed but survived in Rutherford County outside the four cities this year.

The growing number of needless overdose deaths this year alarmed Sheriff’s Lt. Holton, who has investigated drug cases for most of his 20-year career.

“Like every deputy, I am tired of seeing our citizens die from overdoses,” Holton said. “We can’t arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic. It is our goal to transform our opioid-dependent citizens back into healthy members of the community.”

Holton wrote a proposal resulting in a U.S. Department of Justice grant funding deputies on the Strategies and Tactics for Opioid Prevention (STOP) Unit to reduce opioid dependency through education, intervention, prevention and treatment. They started in October.

STOP deputies include Cpl. Jim Throneberry and Deputies Evan Sharp, Carol Stafford, Nick Madore and Gary Herron. They partner with Phemister, whose grant is managed through the Prevention Coalition for Success in Rutherford County.

The responsibilities of the STOP deputies include:

· Educating people about the dangers of opioid drugs including heroin, fentanyl, Oxycodone, Oxymorphone and Hydrocodone.

· Assisting opioid-dependent citizens and their families by connecting them with resources to become opioid-free.

· Responding to overdoses by administering emergency treatment, educating the patient and offering treatment options and providing Narcan, a medical spray that can prevent overdoses.

· Assisting the narcotics detectives in arresting opioid dealers who supply the drugs.

For more information, people may call dispatch at 615-898-7770 and ask for the STOP Unit or email [email protected]

The STOP deputies trained with Outreach Coordinator Joshua Crews of the Tennessee Save a Life First Responder program.

“More people die from opioid overdoses than crashes in Tennessee,” Crews said. “There is an addiction problem.”

Crews instructed deputies on how childhood experiences of trauma increase the chances of substance abuse, how to respond to an opioid overdose and how to prevent death by administering Narcan.

When deputies encounter someone who might need treatment, Phemister finds facilities for drug-dependent people.

“Six individuals from Rutherford County referred by the Sheriff’s Office have graduated from treatment,” Phemister said. “I am able to follow up and get back with the Sheriff’s Office. That is a unique piece that no one else does.”

Holton said the Phemister follows up with the graduates to keep them drug-free.

Before treatment, some people who are drug-dependent will be arrested for possession of illegal drugs or commit property crimes to pay for the drug use, the lieutenant said.

“If you can get them off the substance, you fix two issues: they are no longer dependent on the drug, therefore they don’t have to steal to pay for it,” Holton said.

Hale credited Holton for talking with him about rehabilitation.

“If it wasn’t for him, I never would have thought about treatment,” Hale said.

Hale said Phemister keeps him accountable by making sure he attends meetings.

“She is someone I can call about any problems,” Hale said. “She gets it. I feel like I have a good support system. My goal now is to continue to stay sober and be happy and not depend on substances to keep me sane.”

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