A roundtable discussion led by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) on Monday to address the heroin/opioid addiction crisis was highlighted by a courageous and powerful firsthand account of a local woman’s struggle with heroin addiction.
“I was raised in a good home, so I’d like to point out that (the addiction) doesn’t discriminate,” said Lynn Foster, who described herself as a heroin addict and alcoholic during the compelling discussion among local leaders and public health officials held at the Fayette County Health Department. “I didn’t start off with any hard drugs, I didn’t even start drinking….the first time I smoked marijuana was when I was 18, so it was later in life for me. I really didn’t have any problems at the beginning.”
Foster, the daughter of Washington C.H. City Council vice chair Leah Foster, went on to explain that she began using heroin when she was 22. “Within a matter of five months, I went from snorting it to using needles and being an IV user,” she said. “I was around friends who had it and they said it was a great high. I was in a party phase of my life.”
Soon after, Lynn was arrested on a drug paraphernalia possession charge during a time period when she was working two jobs and was going to college.
“Then all of that changed after I got arrested,” Lynn said. “I was in jail for 60 days for my first offense ever. Then within a week being out of jail, I went back to the exact same thing. There was not treatment, just detox. I did it three times….detox in jail.”
As the vicious cycle continued for Lynn Foster, she was charged with a felony, and while in court, chose to get help at a treatment center in lieu of going to prison. “So I was sent off to treatment the January of the following year,” she said. “But before that, for another three, four months…I was still using. I went to jail, I detoxed and then I went to in-house treatment for five-and-a-half months. I got out of treatment June 25, 2014.”
Lynn has been clean and sober for about 27 months.
“During this time, we were thankful when she was thrown in jail,” Leah Foster said of her daughter. “And I say that because if they’re not in jail, then they have the opportunity to use. It took her 40 days to figure out she had an issue. When they go in for weekend treatment, that’s a joke. Weekend treatments are not a treatment center.”
Leah Foster gave credit to Pickaway Area Recovery Services and the drug rehabilitation facility’s executive director Barry Bennett. “Barry gave (Lynn) the tools,” she said. “They can’t fix you, but they can give you the tools to fix yourself. You have to want to be fixed. But you have to get to that day 40 to even realize that you need to be fixed. That’s why it’s so important to have these treatment centers. Because you are not going to get rid of all of these drug dealers….it’s not going to happen. If the demand is here, the supply will come.”
Because of her daughter’s struggle with addiction and the continuing struggles of countless others, Foster, along with a local group of citizens, created a committee called “Faith and Recovery” to confront this drug problem. “Our goal when we started Faith and Recovery is to help control the demand,” Foster said.
U.S. Sen. Brown, who came to Washington C.H. on Monday to discuss efforts to fight addiction, commiserated with the Foster family and other local families struggling with this deadly addiction.
“Once it hits somebody in your family, the whole family is turned upside down,” Brown said. “Roundtables like this frankly help me do my job better because I hear stories, problems and ideas. It helps me understand all of these issues a little better. This problem has really spread all over the nation. I don’t think anybody predicted 10 years ago that it would become this serious and cut across all demographic groups.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than any other year on record. In Ohio alone, drug overdose deaths increased from 2,110 in 2013 to 2,482 in 2014. According to information provided by the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office at Monday’s roundtable, there were seven confirmed overdose deaths in Fayette County in 2014 and 10 in 2015.
“When it’s easier for Ohioans to access opioids than it is for them to access help to treat their addiction, we have a serious problem,” Brown said. “Opioid addiction is a chronic disease that, when left untreated, places a large burden on our health care system, and on our families. Our Ohio institutions are doing good work – but they need our support. That’s why roundtables like (Monday’s) event are so important – so that I can learn from community leaders what works and what support they need.”
Brown outlined legislation he has introduced, which he said represents a comprehensive approach to address the entire spectrum of addiction. He said his bill would help address the opioid epidemic from prevention to recovery, filling in gaps that would help: boost prevention, improve tools for crisis response for those who fall through the cracks, expand access to treatment, and provide support for lifelong recovery.
Although the United States Senate recently passed legislation – the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015 – to help tackle the opioid epidemic, Brown said his bill would help address the issue gaps that remain in addressing this issue.
During the roundtable, Joshua Wiseman and Jonathan Bennett from Pickaway Area Recovery Services were in attendance to offer their perspectives. The organization operates women’s residential centers in Circleville and Washington C.H.
“We have certainly seen an increase in opioid abuse,” said Wiseman. “With medicated assisted treatment like we offer, we have seen that it can work if it’s done properly. One of the things we are dealing with is doctors that are over-prescribing Suboxone (used to treat opiate addiction). Giving somebody 16 milligrams when really only eight are needed. Now that becomes a problem because the person can take eight milligrams and then they can put eight milligrams out on the streets. They can sell that. That becomes problematic. The body can only process about four milligrams every eight hours. Addicts aren’t thinking about the next two or three days, they’re thinking about the here and now. So medicated assisted treatment does work, but it’s not the be-all end-all. You have to integrate our services or somebody else’s services, but it is needed for the opiate withdrawal symptoms. Because if you don’t get somebody past the opiate withdrawal symptoms, there’s no way you can even reach them.”
Bennett said the larger problem used to be alcoholism. “The last four or five years, we’ve seen an explosion in problems with opiates,” he said. “It cuts across classes and all different groups in our area. We feel a little overwhelmed at times because per capita, we are certainly similar to Franklin County, Cuyahoga County, some of the bigger counties, but we don’t always have the resources to deal with that. Not only us, but our community partners. We do everything we can, but we’re often stretched thin.”
Chelsie Hornsby, the Fayette County Memorial Hospital director of business development, explained that the hospital’s resources can also be stretched thin at times due to the explosion in the number of overdoses.
“I estimate that we deal with about 60 to 80 percent of the overdoses,” Hornsby said. “Fayette County Memorial Hospital is unique in the sense that we also have the EMS. So our EMS is also out there providing Narcan (an opiate antidote) one out of three times. Then they’re coming straight to the ED (Emergency Department). It can take away from other patient care. We’re limited in our resources in the nursing staff to be able to care for an OD patient and also other patients with other chronic diseases at the same time.”
As local governments and agencies struggle to find the funding for appropriate resources, the problem has become more and more lethal.
“The drug is so cheap….it’s readily available,” said Wiseman. “Now people are mixing Fentanyl with the opiate to create some type of substance that is very deadly. You’re seeing more and more of that.”
Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth said his office is seeing more and more deaths related to heroin laced with Fentanyl. It has also become common to see addicts overdose shortly after they are released from jail.
“In their mind, they’re taking a larger dose because the body was able to tolerate that amount previously,” said Stanforth. “We have a large amount of people who were in jail, they go to jail 30, 60, or 90 days, and within 24 hours they overdose. If we have knowledge of an overdose, we would prefer that they get treatment versus incarceration. Otherwise our small, 130-year-old jail cannot accommodate that many people. A lot of folks that we’re dealing with are already on probation….they’re in the system. Because of using drugs and the resulting probation violation, they are put in jail and now, we become a detox center. The vast majority of our initial inmates are detoxing for the first 30 days and the hope is to keep them clean long enough. A mental health specialist is in there daily trying to find a place for those people to go after their jail time.”
The local sheriff’s office recently began carrying Narcan as well due to the overwhelming number of overdoses.
Although treatment is certainly necessary for addicts, Wiseman warned that it is not always successful.
“It’s one of those things where you’re constantly fighting,” he said. “It is a disease. It’s similar to cancer…you can combat some cancers and some you cannot. (The problem) has gotten worse with the younger generation because of parents not being in the homes….split homes. It’s a combination of things. And this combination finally just tips the scales. It seems that a lot of people can’t cope and so they basically try to self-medicate. So we’re dealing with a lot of people who are trying to self-medicate whether it be for some sort of depression or other issues. We have a prevention team going into the local schools to try to emphasize life skills, life-coping skills, and how to make good choices and decisions. We want them to realize that there are other alternatives besides using drugs all the time.”
Look for Part Two of this story in Wednesday’s Record-Herald.