By Lyra Bordelon
As the Greenbrier County Health Department deals with the now-increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, another office in its Fairlea building is dealing with an entirely different epidemic in West Virginia – the opioid and drug crisis. As part of Seneca Health Services, the Quick Response Team (QRT) operates in conjunction with the community and emergency responders to encourage those with addiction issues to get help shortly after an overdose.
Working as just one part of local harm reduction efforts, the Seneca QRT program is coordinated by Rick Martin out of the Health Department offices.
“I’m notified by the 911 Call Center or people in the community about an overdose,” explained Martin. “When that happens I have 24 to 72 hours to respond. I usually take another peer specialist, sometimes maybe a paramedic, or a clergyman because sometimes they might not want to hear what I have to say, they may listen to a priest. … I try to see if they’re ready for recovery. Statistics show that after an overdose is when they’re most apt to go into recovery because they’ve had that epiphany. I try to get them into treatment centers, inpatient, or meeting with a recovery coach or therapist, whichever recovery is their path.”
Once an overdose happens, the clock begins, and Martin prepares to meet with the individual. When he arrives, the response is never completely predictable.
“People are human, each responds differently. Some are absolutely crying, some are thankful you’re there, some don’t trust me, they don’t know me at first, so right off the bat I have to build trust and tell part of my story. I let them know I’m not here to judge them, I’m here to help them and also let them know I’m in recovery myself. I’ve been in recovery for five years. They hear my story and it helps build trust.”
If the person rejects his offer, it isn’t necessarily the end. Each person is entered into a secure, nonpublic database, allowing him to reach out on a weekly or biweekly basis.
“Some people aren’t ready to go, you have to want recovery to get recovery. Some are ready after that, some even without treatment because they were so scared after what happened to them that they haven’t used since. … I had one new referral yesterday, five in treatment, and five I’ve got ongoing meetings with. Some people think that’s low but that’s looking at the negative. If you’ve got one, great, two is better. Anybody you can help or save is good.”
Martin points them to the harm reduction clinic, allowing them to acquire clean needles in order to massively reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis. The clinics also provide access to birth control, Narcan- a drug used to stop opioid overdoses- and fentanyl testing strips. Other drugs are often laced with fentanyl due to its strength, which has led to many overdoses. As this process continues, Martin has noticed the same moment happen with several people.
“Their tone changes and they start suggesting things. It’s like motivational interviewing, you form your questions to let them solve. We get them to express their treatment, that they do need treatment. … They start to realize ‘I need to stop this, I’m getting older, this is going to kill me.’ They crack that door a little bit and we stick our foot in. “
When this begins, Martin can move quickly to get them into the right program.
“From there I can get them into the detox center, [then] take them up to our Summersville location, Recovery Ridge, and do 28 to 56 day in-patient treatment, and from there we have extensive out-patient treatment,” Martin said. “We have peer services, we’ve got therapists, the whole deal. … If they don’t want our place, I can get them in anywhere. It doesn’t matter to me as long as I get them in.”
Over the past five years, Martin explained, the addiction treatment industry has expanded in a number of ways, including new grants from the federal government, leading to new positions and new ways of trying to get help to those that need it. This includes Seneca Health Services and the QRT program, where progress can feel slow, but there are no shortcuts to a successful intervention.
“We slowly chip away at it,” Martin explained. “People may not see the results of what we do because it is a slow process. We get one and the next time we get two and then they relapse, but we don’t give up on anyone. We’re persistent, we care about these people. We want to see them off, we want to see them thrive, and we want to see them as good citizens.”
Although addiction can be frustrating for both the person addicted, as well as their family and friends, Martin emphasized that widespread stigma around the illness is hugely prohibitive to getting people into treatment.
“None of them will tell you ‘hey I want to be an addict.’ It just happens. Some people say it’s their fault, and some part of it maybe, but once that drug has got a hold of you, until you’ve got help it’s not going to let go of you. You’ll do anything to get it, you’ll become a person that you never thought you would be. … Every time they show an addict on tv he’s either slicing somebody’s throat or something horrible. That’s what the public believes, the media portrays that. If we can change some of that [it would help make progress].”
Martin emphasized the role of chemical addiction, wishing the general public would read more about how addiction happens, and the current mystery around why some people can take a drug once or twice and never do it again, while others struggle with it for their entire lives. Although some studies have linked genetics and mental illness to the potential for developing addiction issues, it can strike nearly anyone and has stricken nearly all families in the United States in some way.
“My addiction started when I was in a car wreck and I broke my back,” Martin explained. “This was in the 80s, … the doctors never discussed addiction with me, it was ‘here, boom, take this, you need more, call.’ … I curse the day I ever took an opioid. I didn’t ask to be an addict either, I just woke up one morning and there I was. I didn’t even realize I was addicted – I was at work and got sick. I went into the bathroom and threw up in the trash can, I didn’t realize what was going on. … Then I found out and thought ‘now what do I do.’”
This is a common story for many addicted to opioids – and the subject of many lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and many of the drug manufacturers and distributors. For more on the progress on just one of these lawsuits and what they could mean for West Virginia, see this week’s Mountain State Spotlight story.
“[Once oxycontin] came out and that’s really what grabbed people,” Martin said. “That was introduced as a low probability of addiction, [the drug companies] just lied to the doctors and look what they’ve created. I was addicted legally. I was raised well, never had any problems, came from a good family.”
Now over five years into recovery, Martin left behind his old career to give the help he received to others. The continued growth of programs similar to the one he coordinates are popping up throughout West Virginia, and Martin hopes the individual, one-on-one efforts can make an impact on the problem in a way that mass incarceration throughout the war on drugs has failed to do.
“You don’t shun a person with cancer from their medications,” Martin said. “Don’t shun someone who’s in addiction and trying to get treatment. It’s just like any other disease, not a crime, psychological thriller thing they see in their head. … What if was your child? Or your wife or husband? Your grandma? Would you be talking the same way or would you be glad I’m here trying to help, glad we have a harm reduction trying to save his life and get him into treatment.”