Meet Mary: Foundation launches opioid awareness campaign that reaches county
● By Richard Gaw
Mary, a resident of Chester County, once worked in the New York City fashion world for a period in the 1970s and 80s, at a time when drug usage was thought be a glamorous accompaniment and accessory to the industry she worked in.
When she was in her early 20s, she was introduced to heroin.
Soon after she began using, she developed blood clots in her lungs and a 106-degree fever. Her mother came to see her at her East Side apartment building, and saw immediately that her daughter needed medical care. She immediately called for a car that would take them across town to a hospital on the West Side of Manhattan.
“It was Columbus Day and the parade was going on down Fifth Avenue,” Mary said. “My mother got out of the car, and told a policeman, 'Stop this parade. My daughter is dying.'”
After they eventually reached the hospital, Mary's mother asked the attending physician, “Will my daughter live?” The doctor replied that he did not know for certain. “The best I can say for her is that she is young,” he said.
Mary was in intensive care for the next 12 days, remained the hospital for another six weeks, and was then released to her first rehabilitation treatment, but 10 years later, however, her addiction did not end, but intensified. She was living in Harlem and copping heroin every day to feed her habit, and even her family's decision to take her young daughter from her could not wrestle her life away from her demons.
“I felt I was the worst person in the world,” she said. “Shame increases drug use, and I ended up with bacteria from using dirty needles. I went back to a hospital and was told by a doctor, 'If you use heroin again, you will die.' After being released six weeks later, I immediately copped heroin, and said to myself in the mirror, 'This may kill me, but everyone will be better off without me.'”
She then injected heroin into her neck.
Luckily, she survived, and several years later, after repeated visits to rehab and six months at a halfway house in Minnesota, Mary declared herself sober on July 26, 1984.
“I didn't think there was help available, and I went to rehab thinking, 'There is no way out of this. I should be dead,'” Mary said. “What changed for me was when I discovered through rehab that I had an illness, a disease, and when that realization came to me – that I learned that I was a sick person and not a bad person – the compulsion to do drugs was released from me.
“And that's when I began my recovery.”
Now Mary's story – and the stories of other residents of southeastern Pennsylvania, including Chester County – have been woven into a new multimedia awareness campaign called “Someone You Know,” developed by the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, that is designed to reduce the stigma of opioid misuse and inspire hope in people seeking help with addiction and recovery.
The campaign features a mix of print and outdoor advertising, personal videos, and print stories from people affected by opioid misuse, such as men and women in active recovery, a mother who lost her son to an opioid overdose, and a grandmother raising her granddaughter while her son gets treatment.
The Foundation is collaborating with the Justice Center for Research at Penn State University to enlist the individuals who have already shared their stories as part of the campaign.
“Through bold, direct, and highly personal stories, we hope to raise public awareness that substance misuse is not a problem that people should be ashamed to discuss, and to let those who are struggling know that there are people out there going through the exact same thing and turning around their lives,” said Lorina Marshall-Blake, president of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation. “These are real people telling real stories. It's like saying to everybody who has been affected by opioid addiction, 'You walk in my shoes, too,' and it's been unbelievable to hear all of their stories.”
'This is everyone's crisis'
One of the key intentions of the campaign, Marshall-Blake said, is to remove the addict or family member from the self-imposed sense of isolation that many are imprisoned by.
“It gives us all pause in that we should not be judgmental, and when we think of someone we know, we all know someone in this situation of addiction and recovery, and it's where our humanity comes to the fore, in how we address this crisis,” she said. “This campaign is the foundation's effort to put a personal face on the crisis. In other words, this is everyone's crisis. There is no one who is not touched by it. It's a family affair, and we're all a part of that family.”
“Too often we hear that stigma around substance use disorder leaves people feeling isolated and can keep them out of treatment,” said Jennifer Smith, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “Addiction is a disease and, like any other medical condition, people with a substance use disorder deserve compassion and support as they take steps towards recovery.
“We must all work to change the conversation around addiction so people seeking treatment and living in recovery feel safe, supported, and empowered. This campaign is an important, much-needed step towards breaking this stigma.”
The initial component of the “Someone You Know” campaign is to gain the attention of those who have chosen to keep their addiction – or their loved one's illness – a secret. Then, if they are so willing, the doors to recovery are open to them, chiefly through the foundation's Supporting Treatment and Overdose Prevention (STOP) initiative, aimed at increasing awareness about the opioid epidemic and improving access to opioid abuse prevention and treatment in southeastern Pennsylvania, through a variety of strategies and regional partnerships, such as:
Enabling Community Partners: The foundation supports treatment and prevention programs, including the Moyer Foundation’s Camp Mariposa – a national addiction prevention and mentoring program for children affected by a family member’s substance abuse.
Emergency Room “Warm Hand-off” Programs: A state mandate that aims to connect a drug overdose survivor with an immediate referral to addiction treatment.
Prescription Drug Take-Back Programs: The foundation supports the Pennsylvania Department of Drug & Alcohol Programs efforts to increase availability, awareness and accessibility to drug take-back locations. Since the program began in 2015, the commonwealth has collected and destroyed more than 300,000 pounds of drugs. In 2017, the foundation partnered with Walgreens to add 10 more safe medication kiosks in southeastern Pennsylvania. People will be able to safely dispose their medications at kiosks that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and
Support research in evidence-based and emerging approaches in care coordination and treatment.
Increase services and access to training for Medication-Assisted Treatment.
Award grant funding to effective community based treatment and prevention programs in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Partner with nonprofit and academic stakeholders to identify gaps in preventative and treatment services.
At its core, the Independence Blue Cross Foundation finds solutions that will hopefully lead to a healthier community – through better access to healthcare; advancing the nursing workforce through educational opportunities, and working with other non-profits to address health and wellness needs.
It also attempts to address various health crises that impact the southeastern Pennsylvania region, but the scourge of opioid abuse has been a tsunami that no one in the health care, law enforcement, legal or community-based organizational field ever expected.
In short, it has become an epidemic numbers game that has turned the City of Philadelphia into one of the nation's biggest opioid hotbeds and led to countless incidents of crime, death and overdoses. Approximately 1,600 people in southeastern Pennsylvania died in 2016 from an opioid overdose. In Philadelphia alone, there were more than 1,200 overdose deaths in 2017 and 14,000 people are currently in treatment for opioid dependence.
Closer to home, the numbers are equally as horrific, and rising every year. In January of this year, the Chester County Coroner’s Office released data on deaths due to drug overdose in Chester County in 2017, reporting that 141 people died of a drug overdose in the county, with 133 deaths determined to be accidental and eight due to suicide – a 35.7 percent increase in accidental drug overdoses compared to 2016.
Analysis of the Chester County data shows that there was little change with regard to the gender and race of those dying of overdoses: The affected population remains predominantly male (73 percent) and white (90.2 percent). There has been, however, an age shift towards younger victims. This was due largely to a greater proportion of deaths in those aged 25-34 in 2017 (34.8 percent) than in 2016 (26.5 percent). Deaths in 18-24-year-olds showed a slight increase, from 10.4 percent to 11.3 percent.
'The gift of recovery'
The “Someone You Know” campaign attempts to sink its teeth into this crisis on a personal level.
“We're talking about real people and it's hard not to be touched by the stories of real people,” Marshall-Blake said. “This is not going to be solved by just us. It's going to be a matter of people wrapping their arms around this, whether its other foundations or community members. There is room at the table for everyone to participate. It's everywhere. It's in the job, in the church, in the community. To bring together all of the voices in this fight. Let's bring people together and have dialogue, but not just dialogue, but the pieces we need to see in order to determine where we go from here.”
“The opioid crisis reminds me of the AIDS crisis, which was daunting, so the thought I had was, 'Will we ever be able to get our hands around opioid addiction on this level? I am not saying we have our hands around the opioid crisis yet, but our initial efforts to address it are working. We need to continue to ask, 'How do we get our community to be healthy? How do we best properly prevent people from becoming addicted to opioids and help them toward recovery so that they can be whole again? How do we help give people the gift of recovery?'”
The “Someone You Know” campaign will culminate in a national conference, hosted by the foundation October 16 at the Kimmel Center, that will include workshops and discussion about opioid prevention, treatment, and recovery, particularly throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.
“The title of the campaign, 'Someone You Know, resonates with everybody,” Marshall-Blake added. “This campaign is to let people know that there is hope, that there is help out there, through the faces of those in the campaign who may have fallen but have demonstrated the resiliency to fight back. It's knowing that help is not only on the way, help is the way.”
In a few weeks, Mary will celebrate her 34th year of sobriety. Today, she is the mother of four children, a grandmother to three, an artist and a community leader. In 2012, she began a community center called The New Leaf Club, located in the heart of the Main Line, that provides a space for wellness and recovery-related events, activities, lectures, education and support groups. Targeted to children and young people who have been affected by the disease of opioid addiction, it is a place of positiveness and activity, where art shows connect with workshops and guest speakers, lectures and fundraisers.
“I want to tell the community, whether it's the person with the disease or the family members or the community, that the disease of addiction is an isolating disease,” she said. “Everyone needs to get into community – the addict, the family – everyone needs to connect with someone who has gone through the same issues, whether it's addict to addict, parents to parent, or community to community. Everyone needs to reach out and have a support group. There are so many resources out there. Do not stay alone, and think you can handle this yourself. You can't.
“But, with the spiritual program of reaching out to other people, there is recovery and it's a beautiful thing.”
To learn more about the “Someone You Know” campaign, visit www.ibxfoundation.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Comparison: Drug Overdose Deaths in Chester County
Cause of Death 2016 2017
Drug Overdose – All 106 141
Drug Overdose - Accidental 98 133
Drug Overdose - Suicide 8 8
Source: Chester County Coroner's Office
Prescription Drug Take-Back Sites in Southern Chester County
Drug take-back programs are a secure and convenient way to dispose of medication and will help prevent abuse and reduce access. If you have unused or expired prescription drugs in your home, you can visit over 100 locations to safely dispose of these medications. Check your township or municipality's website for prescription drug take-back events throughout the year. The following law enforcement units provide prescription drug take-back programs throughout the year:
State Police Avondale Barracks, 2 Moxley Lane, Avondale
Kennett Township Police Department, 801 Burrows Run Road, Chadds Ford
Kennett Square Borough Police Department, 115 North Broad Street, Kennett Square
Southern Chester County Regional Police Department, Starr Road (Temporary barracks), Landenberg
Borough of Oxford Police Department, 57 North Fourth Street, Oxford
Parkesburg Borough Police Department, 315 West First Avenue, Building II, Parkesburg
Chester County Sheriff's Office, 201 West Market Street, Suite 201, West Chester
Westtown-East Goshen Regional Police Department, 1041 Wilmington Pike, West Chester
Source: Independence Blue Cross Blue Shield