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Duluth woman’s mobile syringe service featured on health department podcast

DULUTH, MN — The drug epidemic is an ever-growing problem in Minnesota; only made worse by the pandemic.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), there were 373 drug overdose deaths in the state during the first half of 2019.

In the first half of 2020, there were 490 deaths, which is a 31{41490b4d0cf0dbc5ec3f65e11fff509c7d6ed2a53a838ebf7adf43f0908f07f3} increase from 2019.

MDH will release data for the second half of the year next week.

While drug overdose deaths are on the rise, one Duluth woman is showing that recovery is possible.

Sue Purchase has led harm reduction projects professionally for 25 years.

For her, the work is personal.

“I was born and raised in northern Minnesota, and I grew up in a really difficult environment and started using drugs at a young age, for sure by 12,” Purchase said.

After going back to school as a single mom and learning more about public health, Purchase’s life took a turn.

“I’m not a statistic, and I take my life experience, and I sometimes joke about parlaying it into a really good job,” she said.

Purchase is now the director of Harm Reduction Sisters.

“I provide services to people: mobile syringe services, mobile Narcan overdose education services,” she said. “Quite literally meeting people where they’re at.”

Operating out of her home in Duluth, Purchase packs paper bags with resources and delivers life-saving products to people in need.

Harm Reduction Sisters emphasizes helping women and people of color, but no one is excluded from receiving service.

She hopes education will help fill what she sees as a gap in care.

“The prevalence of drug use up here is just off the charts,” Purchase said. “I’ve been doing this program for almost two years now, and I am just stunned by how much drug use there is up here.”

Her mobile service was recently featured in MDH’s new podcast series called “Stories from the Field.”

MDH Overdose Prevention Communications Specialist Julie Bartkey said the series aims to bring awareness and education to the region.

The podcast series is the latest tool in MDH’s opioid overdose prevention work.

“We figured that with this podcast we would try to take a slightly different approach and talk to real people about real stories and talk about how opioids impacted them boots on the groundwork in different communities,” Bartkey said.

Launched this month, the series reveals the raw emotions of people who have battled substance abuse, lost loved ones, and share their journey to recovery.

Bartkey said podcasts are a great way to reach a large audience.

“We have tribal communities represented, white, metro area, greater Minnesota, Black Minnesotans,” she said. “I think we’ve done a really nice job of trying to let people tell their stories and talk about their impacts.”

Two of the five episodes have been released so far.

The series is a pilot program funded by the CDC.

In the podcast, Purchase shares how she helps an underserved community with compassion and describes her service as building a bridge to people in isolation.

“I’m non-judgmental, support people where they’re at, and I’m a stranger,” Purchase said. “I’m not somebody that’s going to judge them for what they’re saying. Be able to help lend some support. Navigate it to make it through to the next day.”

Purchase said she helps an average of 10 to 15 people every day and hundreds every week.

She works closely with parents trying to help their children or grandchildren.

She also operates a used syringe pick-up service to cut back on needle litter and dispose of them properly.

Click here to learn more about Harm Reduction Sisters.

You can also reach them by calling 218-206-6482.

Click here to listen to the Stories from the Field podcast series.