VCU professor creates free naloxone bike to combat opioid crisis

VCUarts professor John Freyer transports his free naloxone bike across campus to promote awareness of opioid addiction and drug overdose reversal. Photo by Enza Marcy

Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer

Since 2016, VCU students have flocked to a bright red bicycle stationed on campus for a hot cup of free coffee. The servers, however, offer more than advertised. 

Created by John Freyer, an associate professor of cross disciplinary media, the free hot coffee bike is used in tandem with Rams in Recovery, VCU’s collegiate recovery program, to foster discussion about substance use and destigmatize addiction recovery. 

“It’s a place for people to be in conversation,” Freyer said. “Because it takes a little while to make cups of coffee, it created a perfect window for us to train people on Narcan.”

The success of the free hot coffee bike inspired Freyer’s second project: the free naloxone bike. With this bike, Freyer and members of Rams in Recovery distribute Narcan, a common brand of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. Administered as a nasal spray, the organization educates individuals on how to safely use the tool and how to recognize an opioid overdose.

The electric bike used for the program has pedal assist and a 60-mile range. Its wooden lockbox, engraved with the words “free naloxone bike,” can hold 50 boxes of Narcan, each containing two doses of naloxone. The bike also features a wooden table on the back, and is equipped with a CPR dummy used for demonstrations on the table. 

“The goal is to get Narcan into the hands of people that might encounter someone in overdose,” Freyer said. “If you’re waiting for 911 or waiting for the police, you might have waited too long, so to have people with Narcan on them is to give an opportunity to revive that person.”

Freyer demonstrates the process for administering the opioid reversal drug Narcan on his CPR dummy, “Manny Fresh the Mannequin.” Photo by Enza Marcy

In 2018, Richmond had the highest number of fatal opioid overdoses in the Commonwealth with 91 deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Health

That same year, there were 46,802 opioid overdose deaths nationwide, reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 1,215 opioid overdose deaths within Virginia.

“We’re in the midst of a large-scale overdose epidemic that is largely driven by opioids, and we have been in this growing epidemic now for going on 30 years,” said Tom Bannard, program director of Rams in Recovery. 

While a slight decline in the number and rate of fatal opioid overdoses was observed between 2017 and 2018, the numbers have begun to climb once more. 

The CDC reported over 81,000 overdose deaths across the United States between June 2019 and May 2020, which the institute characterized in a press release as “the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.”

Freyer credited recent increases in opioid use to the stresses of COVID-19 and social isolation. 

“In the last 12 months, we’ve added to all-time highs in overdose deaths in the Richmond area,” Bannard said, “and my understanding is, across most of Virginia.”

The free naloxone bike was launched in March 2020. Despite near-immediate challenges presented by social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions, Freyer worked with the Richmond City Medical Reserve Corps, or MRC, one of the project’s community collaborators, to create contactless trainings. The individual providing the training wears a mask and gives a socially distanced demonstration. 

Despite its 60-mile range, the bike does not travel freely around the city. By invitation and request, the bike is ridden to events and locations from the Rams in Recovery clubhouse, as the drug needs to be picked up from the MRC in advance. 

“It really encourages people to engage just out in general public,” Bannard said. “When you’re out there on the bike, you can kind of set up anywhere and you can attract more accidental audiences.”

Freyer hopes to have the bike on campus more often in 2021. He expressed potential plans to bring it to campus locations, such as the Compass, regularly on Fridays basis — although no concrete schedule has been established yet. 

Freyer stops to speak with pedestrian Lamont Walker about his free naloxone bike and the importance of opioid overdose education. Photo by Enza Marcy

The bike has two scheduled appearances for the end of the month. On Monday, the bike will be taken to the Executive Mansion to train Gov. Ralph Northam and first lady Pamela Northam in the use of naloxone. 

On Jan. 29, the free naloxone and free hot coffee bikes will appear outside of Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on North Laurel street for the church’s Red Door Ministry weekly meal distribution. 

Through the project’s efforts, Freyer said more than 500 VCU students, faculty and staff have been trained in opioid overdose recognition and the use of naloxone. 

“It’s part of a larger effort that is going on across the state and across the United States to distribute naloxone and get it in the hands of folks who use drugs, folks who love people who use drugs,” Bannard said. 

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