The Opioid Epidemic is Not Someone Else’s Problem

If not for Bellingham’s PeaceHealth, my stepdaughter would be one of the faceless mortality statistics of the opioid crisis. Unemployed, financially unstable, and with only public medical insurance through Medicaid, she sought treatment recently at an emergency walk-in health clinic in Yakima for a large, unexplained lump on her collarbone. The lump was hard, and painful, and seemingly manifested itself without explanation.

The clinic knew that she was a struggling opioid addict. It was not her first time at the clinic. She had sought addiction-related withdrawal treatment there before, where treatment is expensive and, like my stepdaughter, few have private medical insurance that may pay the full cost of quality care. This time, however, instead of compassion, instead of bringing honor to the Hippocratic Oath, the clinic passed judgment about her and responded with the medical equivalent of a stiff-arm — do the minimum, take an X-ray, and send her off like human trash with a cover-your-ass diagnosis (“You must have fallen or something and can’t remember”) that simply defied medical logic.

The clinic knew better. However, her care, and the cost of that care, was someone else’s problem.

Instinctively, my stepdaughter knew that she had been medically shunned because of her addiction. But now desperate, and sensing her health was in danger, she swallowed what remained of her pride, picked up the phone and called my wife. “Mom, I need to come home,” she said, crying. “I have a lump and the lump is getting worse.” When she got off the bus two days later from Yakima, her face told many stories without the need for words, but the only story that mattered was the physical pain on her face. Any reservations that we had about the risks to her, and us, of bringing her home, quickly became irrelevant. We would return to deal with the elephant in the room later.

The emergency clinic at PeaceHealth quickly diagnosed her with a potentially deadly bone infection, likely from IV drug use. If the condition had been left untreated, in another two or three weeks she would have died from septic shock. Unlike the Yakima clinic, her insurance status didn’t matter to PeaceHealth — they treated her with dignity, and demanded that she check herself into the hospital immediately. No one knew that she was Lisa’s daughter or my stepdaughter. To the hospital staff, she was simply a human being in a health crisis, not a statistic or a financial drain.

Within two days, PeaceHealth’s top cardiac surgeon and his team performed a two-hour surgery that not only saved her life, but saved her potential as a person who, we hope, will break the crushing grip of opioids eventually. There is always room for hope. As her parents, we have no choice but to hope. The parental bond of love is an unbreakable, primal instinct no matter the circumstances, no matter the exhausting emotional toll. We always suffer with her. While she recovers in the hospital for the next six weeks, my stepdaughter will receive in-hospital addiction treatment called MAT (medically assisted therapy) care as a precursor to a 90-day in-patient program upon her discharge. Perhaps this time she will turn the corner.

If not for PeaceHealth, however, she wouldn’t even have had the chance.

The disease of opioid addiction is complicated, perhaps more so than most other addictions (see Bellingham Alive’s January 2018 issue, “Opioid Addiction: Why is just saying ‘no’ so hard?”). The drivers — or triggers, as they are called — of opioid addiction are even more complicated. Multiple relapses are common even with treatment. But try we must. For the first time in decades, the life expectancy of U.S. citizens has decreased, according to the U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention, in large part due to the increase of opioid overdoses and opioid-related suicides. This statistic alone should make the opioid epidemic a national emergency.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t yet. The response at the federal, state and local governmental levels has been painfully slow (much the same as the AIDS epidemic). And as if the death toll was not impetus enough, the amount of creative, productive talent that is sidelined from fully contributing to society due to opioid addiction is perhaps an equal travesty. And so unnecessary. Why does it take years to make opioid addiction a societal priority, and even longer to fund the necessary research and treatment programs?

Opioid addiction doesn’t discriminate. People from all walks of life — young, old, professionals, tradesmen, rich, and poor — are impacted, and the world is lesser for it. If calm, rational pleading for help hasn’t worked, it is time to raise our collective voices several decibel levels and demand action. Yell, if we must. Time is critical. Even in the time it took to write this piece, someone has died of an opioid overdose. That one life is one life too many, isn’t it?

For me, I worry each day that the one life will be my stepdaughter.

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"Why does it take years to make opioid addiction a societal priority, and even longer to fund the necessary research and treatment programs?"