Incremental improvements leading to meaningful change.
That’s how Sam Quinones, a longtime journalist and author of the book “Dreamland,” told an audience of about 80 people Tuesday at Ivy Tech Community College Richmond that an area’s addiction problems must be attacked.
Meridian Health Services and Reid Health plan one of those improvements for early 2020. The organizations will partner to provide a maternal treatment program for expecting mothers and new mothers battling addiction, said Gerry Cyranowski, vice president of clinical services for Meridian, which sponsored its Speaker Series event featuring Quinones and a panel discussion among area leaders.
A similar maternal treatment program in Muncie worked with 47 mothers during the fiscal year from July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019, and has helped 109 mothers since its inception in 2017.
Lisa Suttle, a regional vice president for clinical services for Meridian and the former facilitator for Wayne County’s Heroin Is Here group, said the program would be a positive step for Wayne County.
“They help those mothers get to a place where they get to keep their babies with them,” she said.
Erika Brandenstein, a Reid obstetrician and gynecologist, said she has struggled in the past helping to meet all of the needs expressed by mothers because they often have addiction issues beyond medical problems. The new program will combine services for medical, psychological, socio-economic and spiritual issues, she said.
Brandenstein said she’s found during her interactions with addicted mothers during nearly eight years at Reid that “these weren’t mothers that didn’t care about their babies.” With the stigma of addiction removed, the mothers will have an atmosphere of hope to change their lives.
She called it “absolutely amazing” to be served at Cracker Barrel by a former patient who is now clean and can show the doctor pictures of her child.
Quinones, who crossed the country researching his book about the opiate epidemic faced by the United States, said that the addiction problem no longer remains hidden and that it’s showing all of us how it must be defeated.
“The only approach is coming together and strengthening our community bonds,” he said.
The answer, Quinones said, is in a community’s removing the isolation of addiction and working in a variety of ways to address the culture that leads to addiction.
“There is no solution,” Quinones said. “There are many solutions … plural.”
He mentioned the expansion of medically assisted treatments, more treatment facilities and specialty courts, such as drug courts that can better serve those with addictions or mental illness.
When Quinones wrote his book, heroin, which now almost completely originates in or passes through Mexico, was a cheaper, stronger alternative to prescription opioids to which many Americans had become addicted. Now, however, Mexican cartels are moving more methamphetamine and fentanyl, an even stronger opioid, into the United States.
“We are no longer in an opiate epidemic,” he said. “We are just simply in an addiction epidemic.”
Coroner Ron Stevens said the county has seen a dip in overdose deaths; fentanyl is being mixed with every other drug he sees, including marijuana. He’s been told that some new variations of fentanyl now being used are 20 to 30 times stronger than those previously seen.
Stevens said Wayne County has regularly ranked among the top five counties in Indiana regarding drug-related deaths. And Indiana ranks fifth among U.S. states in the rate of opioid use, according to Cyranowski.
Quinones traced the path that led to the national addiction problem. It began, he said, in the 1980s when the country’s heroin supply moved from the Far East, which resulted in expensive, weak heroin, to Latin American cartels that provided cheaper, stronger heroin.
At the same time, a revolution in pain management occurred in the United States as opioid use drastically increased to numb pain. Then, in 1996, Oxycontin was introduced and sold by aggressive sales reps who knew nothing about the product except how to sell it, Quinones said.
“Oxycontin was a game-changer,” he said.
If an insurance company or doctor pulled the plug on an addicted person’s Oxycontin supply, “soon heroin was the obvious no-brainer,” Quinones said.
The author said he found a culture that wanted a quick fix for any kind of pain and Americans expected that they would not have to deal with pain, whether it was physical or emotional. Quinones said our society changed to become overprotective, especially shielding children from pain.
People became more isolated from each other, and our culture celebrated addictive things such as fat, salt and sugar, Quinones said.
“Heroin is the final expression of that,” he said, noting that those addicted to heroin become narcissistic and withdrawn while escaping pain.