The Ohio State University Alumni Association

On the attack against opioids

With eyes wide open, Kelsey Schmuhl is making strides in a battle plaguing Ohio and the nation.

Kelsey Schmuhl ’12, ’17 PHARMD is working to be part of the solution to Ohio’s opioid crisis. She is the 2018 recipient of The Ohio State University Alumni Association’s William Oxley Thompson Award for early career achievement.

Kelsey Schmuhl was a freshman in Professor Ken Hale’s Introduction to Pharmacy class nearly a decade ago when her life changed forever. Hale, a beloved educator retiring this fall after more than four decades of teaching, had just informed the class that drug overdoses surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental deaths in Ohio. The news shook the young student.

“That really stuck with me. How can I be in this field where we do so much good for medication practices, and yet there is this whole other side of medication practices causing so much harm?” Schmuhl recalls thinking. “What can I do to get involved and help?”

There was plenty she could do, and Schmuhl dove in quickly and vigorously to attack Ohio’s opioid epidemic. Over the next nine years, Schmuhl worked closely with Ohio State’s Generation Rx educational program, began an annual campus candlelight vigil for drug overdose victims, was instrumental in a program dispensing naloxone at Ohio State’s Wilce Student Health Center and testified before state legislators in support of naloxone-dispensing legislation. (Also known as Narcan, naloxone is a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.)

All the while, she was pursuing first her bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences and then her doctor of pharmacy degree at Ohio State. She earned those in 2012 and 2017, respectively.

Schmuhl’s quest to stem the rising tide of drug overdoses has taken this alumna on a long, winding road since her freshman-year awakening. “She just works hard, gives of herself and cares deeply. Those three qualities underlie all of her work,” says Hale ’76, ’87 MA, ’95 PHD. “Kelsey is changing the world.”

Another wake-up call came in 2011. Schmuhl was working at her part-time job at a local pharmacy counter when a drug addict, claiming to be armed with a gun, demanded drugs. “Why would he feel the need to do that?” Schmuhl asks, then answers her rhetorical question. “This person was struggling with a disorder affecting his brain to the point where he had [to have drugs] to feel normal.” She was frightened, yet still she emerged from the experience more determined than ever to help.

Hale recalls his prize student being deeply seared by the robbery. “I think it made her understand something different about this issue and what some of the ramifications of addiction can be,” says Hale, who received the association’s Alumni Medalist Award in 2017 for his work in the opioid crisis and other achievements.

In 2015, Schmuhl stared down another intimidating sight as she gave testimony at the Ohio Statehouse in support of legislation that would allow pharmacists and supervised pharmacy interns to dispense naloxone to caregivers of addicts without a prescription. As her testimony went on, Schmuhl grew more at ease addressing the packed house of lawmakers, staff and lobbyists.

“Many of the people in our legislature didn’t know about naloxone and were eager to learn. I brought in a sample kit, and demonstrated how simple it was to put together,” Schmuhl says. “Part of the law would allow pharmacy interns to counsel caregivers, so it was really great for them to have a student teaching them how to use it.”

This fall, Schmuhl’s life will come full circle as she takes over teaching Hale’s Introduction to Pharmacy course upon his retirement. As the one-time student thinks about becoming the teacher, she gets emotional. “If I talk too much about it, I start to cry,” she says. “I really can’t believe it.”