Summit aims to help communities combat drug crisis

Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, the 20th Surgeon General of the United States, says that instead of placing blame for the opioid crisis, community members should work together to seek solutions to the epidemic. Adams was the keynote speaker at the second annual National Opioid Crisis Community Summit on Dec. 11 at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

ABERDEEN — As the nation assesses how to best deal with its opioid crisis, Vice Adm. Jerome M. Adams, the 20th Surgeon General of the United States, posed this question and answer in a keynote address: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

The surgeon general spoke to an audience of approximately 300 people on Tuesday, Dec. 11, during the second annual National Opioid Crisis Community Summit at Aberdeen Proving Ground where he and other leaders discussed multi-pronged approaches to solving the opioid crisis.

Adams said that when people point fingers at those they believe are responsible for the opioid crisis — to doctors overprescribing opioid drugs, police officers arresting people who are using the drugs, drug companies marketing the drugs without divulging their highly addictive quality — nothing gets done. Instead of assigning blame for the problem, he called on all community members to be part of the solutions.

“I can’t eat an elephant by myself and neither can any of you all. But if every single one of us in this room took a bite, we would have it eaten in no time,” he said.

According to Adams, 2.1 million people in the United States struggle with an opioid abuse disorder and a person dies from an opioid overdose every 11 minutes. The surgeon general said that the impact of the opioid crisis is felt across racial, ethnic, geographic, academic and economic boundaries.

The opioid crisis isn’t an abstract concept for Adams — in fact, it hits just about as close to home for him as it can get.

Adams shared that his brother is currently serving a 10-year prison term after committing a series of crimes to fuel his opioid addiction.

One day when Adams’ brother was at a party, someone gave his brother an opioid pill. After that, Adams said his brother’s life declined rapidly.

The surgeon general said that when someone falls victim to the opioid crisis, everyone pays the price. Adams said he wishes his family had paid $50 for an after-school program to keep his brother on the right path when he was younger rather than the $500,000 that citizens are having to pay to keep him in prison.

“Even if you don’t care about me or my brother, you guys are the ones paying that $500,000 to incarcerate him for the next 10 years,” he said. “So which do you want it to be? $50 or $500,000? ... We’ve got to prevent addiction before it starts.”

Adams wasn’t alone among the speakers who have been affected by opioids. Rob Devereux, who now works for Ashley Addiction Treatment in Havre de Grace, shared his story as a person who has been in recovery from opioid addiction since Feb. 22, 2007.

Referencing a photo of himself taken while he was in the throes of addiction, Devereux asked the audience whether they saw someone who was 3.75 GPA student in high school, a three-sport athlete, a member of the student council, a brother of a Maryland police officer and a grandson of a Marine Corps general from World War II who was a Navy Cross recipient and former U.S. congressman.

Despite all of those revered characteristics, Devereux said many people, including some of the audience members, would likely only see the stigma that has been placed upon people experiencing addiction.

“I didn’t plan to be a drug addict. I didn’t plan to be an alcoholic. That wasn’t part of my story,” he said.

Devereux wanted to show people that recovery is possible and that he is the end result of years of continuing recovery. He said he attempted sobriety at 21 years old, but didn’t get sober until three years later.

“I didn’t get sober the first time, so don’t give up on these people,” he said. “It took some time.”

No matter how many people told him to stop, Devereux said he was just fueled to keep going. It took hearing the story of a man — who had once been homeless and lived in Wyman Park in Baltimore, but was able to recover and turn his life around — to change Devereux’s mind.

“He shared his experience, strength and hope, and I heard him,” he said.

Through the help of the 12-step community and medical professionals, Devereux said he was able to plot his course and stay on the path of recovery. Today, he says he has not wanted to consume alcohol or drugs for a very long time.

“Sobriety hasn’t been hard since that initial phase,” he said. “It’s a daily reprieve, no question. But what I’m here to say is there is a solution. It does work, and many times it requires everyone to work together.”

Working at Ashley Addiction Treatment, Devereux said he now gets to help people who are in the position he used to be, as well as train police police officers in crisis intervention — including officers’ whose cells he sat in. He said education is important for reducing the stigma against addiction.

“We hear ‘trickle down’ all the time, but the ‘trickle up’ effect that can happen from education is imperative,” he said.

Rather than telling people struggling with addiction what not to do or focusing on the problem of opioid addiction, Devereux suggested that it might be more beneficial to highlight stories of recovery to give those people hope for the future once they are ready and able to change.

“When we focus on the problem, the problem increases. When we focus on solutions, solutions increase,” he said.

Continuing Battle

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy highlighted some of the roles the county has played in combating the opioid crisis, including hosting drug overdose roundtables and being one of the first counties in the state of Maryland to bring a lawsuit against pharmaceutical and drug distribution companies for their “unethical and fraudulent marketing practices that have helped fuel this terrible epidemic.” However, in an interview, the county executive also acknowledged that Cecil County still has a long way to go.

“Everybody is suffering and basically has no idea on how to identify and deal with this issue unfortunately,” he said. “In spite of our efforts, this problem has only gotten worse.”

According to McCarthy, more than 90 percent of the inmates in Cecil County’s detention center are there for drug addiction or property crimes associated with acquiring the money to buy drugs.

“The social and financial burden is crippling and is absolutely, positively destroying our society,” he said.

The county executive said, “Narcan, the lifesaving antidote used to reverse the effects of heroin and opioid overdose, is being abused by addicts as a failsafe in their efforts to achieve an even greater drug high thus wasting the medication as well as the emergency services personnel.”

McCarthy said communities need to continue treating those who are experiencing opioid addiction, but he also advocated for greater implementation of prevention and education practices to stop people from using and getting addicted to opioids in the first place.

In an interview, McCarthy also said he would like to see an expansion of a prescription drug monitoring system to all states to cut off “doctor shopping,” or the practice by which patients visit multiple doctors to collect prescription drugs to fuel their addiction. By communicating better, doctors can stop patients from being able to receive the same prescription at several places.

McCarthy said that Maryland has made some headway on stopping “doctor shopping.” However, he said Cecil County continues to be affected by this issue due to the county’s close proximity to Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where McCarthy said anti-doctor shopping measures have not been enforced well enough.{/span}

Community Effort

Maj. Gen. Randy S. Taylor, senior commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground, compared the fight against the opioid crisis to the battles that soldiers face on the front lines.

“They don’t fight for generals or presidents; they fight for each other, their brothers and sisters in arms,” Taylor said. “Ladies and gentlemen, here in this room, these are your brothers and sisters in arms in this battle of the opioid crisis. We are fighting for each other, for our communities, for our fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, and neighbors.”

Taylor urged government officials, medical professionals and other community members to communicate, collaborate and share resources so that together they can reduce the number of lives affected by the opioid crisis.

As an acute care nurse practitioner, Dr. Vinciya Pandian has worked for the last 15 years taking care of patients that have overdosed on pain medications and other types of drugs and have been fighting for their lives on mechanical ventilators.

“They were very upset and unprepared as they watched their daughter or their son lose their lives,” said Pandian, who also is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

Pandian described a patient who was in a major motor vehicle accident that resulted in him needing to have back surgery. The patient was prescribed pain medications, but became tolerant to their effects over time.

Even after his injuries healed, Pandian said the patient continued to seek out pain medications, “shopping” from doctor to doctor for the drugs. When he couldn’t get the drugs from medical professionals, the patient sought them on the street.

After he overdosed, the patient ended up in Pandian’s care until he passed away.

Pandian came across an evidence-based operating system called “Communities That Care,” which works to address problems before they happen and looks as the community as a whole.

The operating system has five phases: engaging leaders in the community, organizing a community board, developing a community profile based on collected data, creating a plan, and implementing and evaluating that plan.

“Phase 5 is not the last phase because Communities That Care is an ongoing continuous improvement process,” she said.

The system cycles through the phases to collect data every two years and re-evaluate the trajectory of the community.

Echoing Pandian’s remarks, Taylor highlighted the necessity for a community-wide approach to fighting against opioid addiction.

According to Taylor, 94 percent of Aberdeen Proving Ground’s workforce is comprised of civilians and contractors, with the vast of majority of them living out in the communities where the opioid crisis has manifested.

Taylor emphasized that Aberdeen Proving Ground is committed to working with the surrounding communities to work toward solutions to the opioid crisis.

“Those who have heard me speak before know that I believe that APG belongs to everyone, and this army is your army. We cannot pretend the challenges in our community stop at our gates,” he said.

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