Jill Panto knows Narcan. She’s been trained in how to administer it. She has organized Narcan trainings for her community in Belchertown. By now, she could probably teach people herself how to use the life-saving opiate overdose reversal drug, a key weapon in the fight against opioid deaths. But nothing prepared her for the night, two days before Christmas, when she had to use it to save her own son.
Christopher Besancon, 27, was home for a holiday visit, and together, mother and son, had gone to a meeting of the family support group Panto co-founded two years ago. Afterward, Besancon planned to meet up with friends. Panto went to bed.
When she woke up later, something didn’t feel right. She peeked into Besancon’s room, where he was asleep in a chair. He was snoring in a way that caught her attention. She tried to shake him awake, but he didn’t rouse. “I’m not wrapping my head around this,” Panto, 49, recalled months later. Part of her still believed he was simply sleeping soundly. But on another level, she said, “I knew.”
When she finally grasped that her son’s respiration had slowed dramatically, suggesting he was dying, she yelled for her husband, Besancon’s stepfather, Belchertown Police Sgt. William Panto. He called 911 while she ran into the kitchen to get the Narcan, a nasal spray mist, she keeps on hand.
“I’m fumbling. My brain won’t put it together even though it’s really simple,” she said of the syringe.
Her husband took over, but Besancon remained unconscious. William Panto gave another dose. Finally, Besancon came to.
When Chris Besancon was growing up, there were no apparent signs he might be at risk of becoming addicted to drugs, his mother says. He was often the designated driver for friends who were drinking.
When he was in his early 20s, Panto noticed a change. He slept a lot and never had money, even though he was working. Still, she couldn’t put her finger on what might be wrong.
“It was not very overt,” she said.
Then in 2014, an acquaintance of her son told Panto about what he feared were signs of drug misuse by Besancon. Things started to click for Panto. “Some part of me knew there was something up.”
When she talked to Besancon, he admitted he had been using opioids. He said he wanted to stop. “He was resigned to the fact that the jig was up,” Panto said. She was encouraged.
“I told him this is not in my wheelhouse. I have no idea and I cannot fix this for you,” said Panto. “He told me he would go get treatment because he didn’t want to do this anymore. My thought was, okay, he’ll get treatment and we’ll be okay.”
Instead, the family entered a maze of treatment, relapse, hope, despair — and hope again.
Panto, Belchertown’s town accountant, threw herself into learning all she could about opioid addiction. “I needed to understand it in order to deal with it.”
In October of 2015, she joined thousands of people for a national addiction recovery rally in Washington, D.C., where she was inspired to assist other families like hers. Back home, she helped start SOAAR (Speaking Out About Addiction and Recovery) for anyone at any stage of recovery as well as their families and friends.
“Having everyone together has been really, really a good experience,” Panto said.
Organizing SOAAR also has been an important part of her own healing, she says. “It helps me so much to feel like I can A. make another family member not feel so alone, and B. give a little love and support to someone on the road to recovery.”
Meanwhile, despite all Panto knew about the inevitability of relapse, she harbored hope her son’s case would be different.
“As a mom, it’s like maybe it’s one and done,” she said. “Maybe he’ll be one of the very few.”
That was not to be.
Like many people facing opiate addiction, Besancon began following a jagged path: detox to treatment to release to a sober residence, then back to his previous, perilous life, sometimes living at home. Mixed in were close friends dying from overdoses.
All of it is a blur for Panto, who thinks there may have been five detoxes, an unknown number of treatments of different lengths, and several sober houses.
She recalls once picking her son up after a lengthy time in treatment and driving six hours home.
“He’s telling me all the stuff he learned. He knows he’s got it, and within the week he relapses,” she says. “It’s devastating. … It takes longer to build up your hope every time.”
Besancon says he knew his actions caused his family anguish, but that became secondary to the urge to use.
“When I’m in my addiction, the way I affect other people in no way hinders my drive or my desire toward getting the drug that I want,” he said in a recent interview. “Getting high is my top priority above anything else.
“I would continue to use, disappoint the family, and in order to not feel the shame or remorse, use again.”
Since his near-death at Christmas, Besancon has been living in a sober house in Pennsylvania and works for a landscaping company. He says he knows now that work on his recovery must be his top priority.
Previously, “I wasn’t working any type of program. I was kind of white-knuckling it,” he says. An active approach will be the difference this time, he says, “rather than going to meetings and hoping that’s going to fix me.”
Panto slowly has been coming back from the terror and grief she experienced over his overdose. It helps to see the progress he is making.
“Everything about him has shifted,” she said. “I have the most hope I’ve had since this all came down the pipeline.”
She continues her work with SOAAR and plans to become a Narcan trainer. Meanwhile, she savors the small things.
“It feels good,” she said, to be able to breathe again.”
Laurie Loisel, director of community outreach and education for the Northwestern District Attorney’s office, is a member of Hampshire HOPE, the opioid prevention coalition run through the city of Northampton’s health department. Members of Hampshire HOPE contribute to this monthly column about local efforts to address the opioid epidemic.
Where to get help
How to get Narcan: All Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies carry standing orders for Nasal Naloxone, the overdose reversal drug that has saved countless lives. A standing order allows people to obtain Nasal Narcan without a prescription. Many insurance companies cover the cost of Narcan with no co-pay required, although some policies require a co-payment.
Tapestry Health in Northampton offers training for using Nasal Narcan as well as supplying Narcan kits: (413) 586-0310, tapestryhealth.org.
Learn to Cope, a peer-led support network for families, offers training using Nasal Narcan as well as supplying Narcan kits: learn2cope.org
Hampshire HOPE will hold community trainings on Nasal Narcan administration. To arrange one, call (413) 587-1219 or go to hampshirehope.org
A Narcan training video can be found at this link: northwesternda.org/nasal-narcan-training-2014
The Northampton Recovery Center: northamptonrecoverycenter.org
Western MA Parents Support Group, Sisters of Providence Hospital, Wednesdays, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Learn to Cope peer support meetings in Holyoke and Greenfield
Allies in Recovery, online support for families: alliesinrecovery.net
Massachusetts Substance Abuse Information and Education Helpline: (800) 327-5050 or helpline-online.com
Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery (MOAR) offers addiction recovery, education and support: (877) 423-6627, moar-recovery.org.