Saving Lives of Patients Affected by Opioid Epidemic

Serena Natal

Serena Natal

By Jeanne Leong

When Serena Natal saw how the opioid epidemic was devastating individuals and families in recent years, she knew she had to take action – and, in some situations, resort to using life-saving measures.

A psychiatric nurse practitioner, with a doctorate in nursing practice (DNP) from the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden, Natal has worked with patients with drug- and alcohol-use disorders through most of her nearly 20-year career. Over the years, clients with an alcohol-use disorder remained constant, but she saw the use of other substances increase starting with crack cocaine. Then, more and more, it became opioids.

“Every week, I’ve encountered someone who was affected by an opioid overdose some way or somehow,” says Natal, “whether it was a client of mine, the family member of a client, or a staff member’s family member.”

While a nursing student at Rutgers–Camden from 2015-2017, Natal researched and created an educational intervention on implementation of opioid overdose management training in substance-abuse treatment facilities. Through her research, she created a guide that’s now used by the staff at halfway houses, residential treatment facilities, and outpatient treatment facilities that serve Camden County residents. The manual provides information about opioid overdose management and how to incorporate the education into treatment for clients with an opioid-use disorder.

The educational intervention provided information from how an overdose occurs with opioids, to instructions on how to administer Narcan, the medication that reverses the effects of opioids.

For health-care professionals, Natal says, knowing how to administer Narcan to prevent an overdose is as important as knowing CPR.

“These clients being treated in rehab don’t usually have heart attacks from opioids, but they’re overdosing and are in the company of others that are overdosing.”

Natal’s research for the educational tool was the basis for her capstone, titled, “A Practice Improvement Project: Implementation of Opioid Overdose Management Training.”

The Sicklerville resident’s path to earning her doctorate started in 2003, when she began taking classes at Camden County College, and progressed continuously for 14 years. Natal earned an associate’s degree from Camden County College, a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Delaware, a master’s in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania, and then received her DNP at Rutgers University–Camden in 2017.

A single mother, she took classes full-time and worked full-time in the medical field, beginning when her son, Zay, was in daycare. Now, he’s a freshman in college. She says it was through her family’s support, especially her parents’ assistance, that she was able to accomplish her goals. Her family helped to care for Zay when she was working, in class, or doing classwork.

“My family helped me with him tremendously,” says Natal. “It was with time. They would ask if I needed help to pick him up, to do this, or to do that. It was a lot of support.”

When she had studying to do near her home, she would often bring him with her to her favorite study location: a nearby Barnes and Noble bookstore.

“He would bring his schoolwork,” says Natal, “and he could have as many chocolate chip cookies as he wanted.”

Her whole family pitched in. When Natal was working on her DNP capstone, her computer-savvy teenager lent a hand.

“I called him plenty of times and said, ‘I cannot get my computer to do X, Y, Z. I cannot get this graph in my research report. Help me out, here.’”

Now that Natal has accomplished her educational goals, she’s continuing to work at A Step Ahead Partial Hospitalization Program at Inspira Health Network in Bridgeton, a behavioral health program for children three to 17 years old. In addition, she owns and operates LifeSpan Psychiatry, providing community and outpatient psychiatric treatment and services across the developmental lifespan. She continues to work with clients in residential and intensive outpatient substance-abuse treatment facilities, and educate substance-abuse treatment staff on opioid overdose management.

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