Families affected by the epidemic of opiate addiction got a chance to share their stories with the Director of National Drug Control Policy Tuesday, at a forum in New London.
The roundtable discussion convened at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital, the facility that’s treated 28 overdose patients in the last three weeks. And Congressman Joe Courtney had to begin by asking for a moment of silence, a mark of respect for a 21-year-old Waterford man who had died that morning of a heroin overdose.
In a packed board room in front of lawmakers, municipal leaders, police officers, health care workers, and addiction specialists, Tammy Sisco is one of the mothers who stood to share her story.
Three of her five children are addicted to heroin, and Sisco’s daughter is one of those who treated at Lawrence and Memorial on January 28, in the first wave of overdoses that brought the spotlight to New London.
“They just discharged her that night from the ER," Sisco said. "They found a place for her to go in Hartford, and they said there’s no beds available. She goes on a waiting list, and it’s now February 16, and there’s still no bed. So, she’s just out there and still using, and waiting for a bed.”
The difficulty of finding ongoing help for addicts was a theme that surfaced time and again throughout the hour-long discussion.
Dr. Deirdre Cronin works in the emergency room at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital, and dealt with many of the recent overdose cases. She called for a national database for opiate prescriptions, and she also spoke of the opportunity to reach out when an overdose patient is revived.
"At that point, you really want to be able to take that vulnerable moment for that person, and say, you know, if somebody hadn’t called, or you hadn’t been where someone saw you, you would have died today," Cronin said. "And the emotional impact of that is often a window into that person seeking treatment, so you don’t want to just say, here’s your discharge papers, see you later."
But if insurance won’t pay, or if a bed can’t be found, or if the patient’s simply unwilling, the opportunity can be missed.
Tammy de la Cruz runs a non-profit, Community Speaks Out, with her husband Joe, founded out of their own son’s struggles with addiction. Now she helps other families.
"I’ve had so many doors shut in our face over this," de la Cruz told the gathering. "Nothing worse than a mother calling you saying, my son is addicted, my daughter’s addicted, my husband’s addicted, and if there’s no beds, you have no options."
Families spoke of the frustration of 30-day treatment programs, which often are too short to be effective, and of disastrous stays in sober houses, where drugs are all too available.
Listening to their stories was Michael Botticelli, the National Director of Drug Control Policy for the Obama Administration. He is himself a recovering alcoholic and former drug user. "You know, I’ve been in recovery for a long time," he said. "Even people who are active in addiction have civil rights. And sometimes that’s difficult for an emergency room physician to understand what that balance is. And I hear what you’re saying. I can’t imagine what it’s like being a parent when your kid’s on the street."
The administration has allotted $1.1 billion in next year’s budget to fight the opiate epidemic, and Botticelli told the meeting he hopes that will fund many approaches, including over-prescription and drug interdiction, as well as a proper continuum of treatment.
"Someone shouldn’t have to wait a long time for a bed," Bottticelli said. "But also, we need to create access points in many different places, at our community health centers; we need more physicians to be trained to do that. But we have to look at a whole bunch of different solutions. And I think that’s what people are trying to say. There's no one thing. We have to do all of these things."
Joe Courtney and Senator Richard Blumenthal have welcomed the new federal funding, but said that waiting until next year is too late. They've put in a request for a $600 million emergency appropriation to deal immediately with what they call a man-made disaster.