A call to arms in the opioid battle
By Amelia Pak-Harvey ¦ Lowell Sun
Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 - 8:35 a.m.
LOWELL -- Keriann Kilcoyne was 12 when she first started drinking, a habit that led her down a path she never envisioned for herself.
When her parents divorced, she got in and finally out of an abusive relationship. Things were going well until she had a small medical procedure that introduced her to Percocet.
Twelve years later, she was homeless in Lowell and ended up in jail. It was drug court, she said, that saved her life. She's now 20 months sober.
Kilcoyne shared her story as one of seven recovering addicts on a panel that the Middlesex District Attorney's Office formed to examine ways to combat the opiate epidemic.
The findings round out three Mobile Public Policy forums held throughout the county and stress early identification, trauma intervention and a change in prescription amounts.
"We engaged in dialogue," Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said in the presentation at Lowell General Hospital on Friday. "We talked about and listened to what it was like to try to get from the throes of addiction to being in a place of recovery."
In Lowell, the number of opiate-related deaths increased by 180 percent from 2014 to 2015. Across Middlesex County, deaths increased by 125 percent.
Last year, Lowell had no weapons-related deaths, said Police Superintendent William Taylor. But at the same time, the city experienced 47 fatal opiate overdoses.
It happens in environments where people don't always expect, he explained.
"It's going to take everybody," Taylor said. "The police can't do it alone, the medical professionals can't do it alone. But if we all work together we stand a chance of reducing that number from 47."
Just two months into the new year, 22 people have died from heroin in Middlesex County.
The DA's panel found commonalities among the seven recovering addicts, all from upper- or middle-class families: More than half had a predisposition to addiction and almost all had a history of trauma, Ryan said.
The conversations sparked a number of recommendations, including trauma intervention for children whose family members have overdosed.
Ryan spoke of a 7-year-old who knocked on the bathroom door when she noticed her mother, a drug addict, did not come out.
After an emergency response in which her mother died, the child still went to school that day, Ryan said.
"Can we as adults, as leaders in the community, be surprised when we see that child six years from now either in addiction herself or in the juvenile court?" Ryan said.
She detailed a new initiative in which police officers at the scene will make referals to the Greater Lowell Mental Health Association so that within 24 hours, there are services for that child.
Ryan also explained that many people go to open houses just to steal drugs from the home's medicine cabinet.
As a result, her office has partnered with RE/MAX to train real estate brokers on keeping medications out of public access when showing a home.
Her office also set up a substance-abuse collaborative for new mothers.
In the county's eight hospitals, Ryan said, there's been a "startling increase" in the number of substance-exposed newborns.
The collaborative provides a continuum of care for newborns that continues through their first few years of life.
One of the biggest frustrations she heard came from nurses on ob-gyn floors.
"They knew there was a risk and that child was going home with those mothers and fathers," Ryan said. "This really gives wraparound services."
Some initiatives to tackle the epidemic are already launched -- Lowell's Drug Court graduates its first class next week. Meanwhile, a relatively new state law now makes trafficking in fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, a crime.
Ryan has backed a proposal to limit the amount of opiate prescriptions doctors can give patients in emergency rooms or acute care hospitals, restricting the medication dosage to 72 hours.
Dr. Brian O'Connor, founder of Middlesex Recovery, explained how his son's addiction caught him by surprise. He had spent 25 years as a doctor delivering 5,000 babies.
"I thought I knew a lot about medicine and it landed on my lap that my son was a heroin addict," he said.
He described a culture of unacceptance when he tried to open a recovery practice in Malden. He eventually opened his current office in Woburn.
"It just gives you an idea that it's not that easy to give addiction care," he said. "It goes into almost a stigma. All of a sudden I took on, as a physician, a lot of the prejudice that came upon the patients."
Access to recovery care, he said, is horrendous -- federal law limits him to working with 100 patients maximum.
"We get 50 phone calls a week for new patients," he said. "These are crying mothers, these are pregnant women, these are spouses of people we take care of. We can take about 15."
The DA's public policy forums will help shape action to address opiate addiction. Lowell's own opiate-crisis task force, formed just last winter, addresses addiction problems in the city.