Feeling the Force
By Dan Greeson
Marnie Smith, Sarah Floyd, Beth Wendler, Mara Rhodes, Ken Davis, Katy Thiel, Ralph Maher, Caroline Wellford and Ellen Kendall from the Rx Task Force gather outside the Bud Werner Memorial Library before a brainstorming session. Photo by Noah Wetzel.
A car races up to the emergency room entrance at the Yampa Valley Medical Center. The door is opened and the lifeless body of a youth overdosing on heroin is thrown out. The drivers leave him for dead; they don’t want to be seen.
“That should be a wake-up call to anyone who thinks we don’t have a drug problem in this community,” says David Wilkinson, M.D., medical director for emergency services. “To witness that happening in Steamboat is shocking.”
Wilkinson is talking about the national prescription opioid and heroin epidemic that is leaving virtually no community – big city or small town – unscathed. Nineteen people in Routt County died from drug and alcohol overdoses in 2016.
“I feel like every shift I work now entails an overdose involving drugs and/or alcohol,” says Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue firefighter and paramedic Marnie Smith. “It’s kids and adults from all walks of life that are affected by this epidemic; no one is immune,” says the mother of two.
In 2015, Mara Rhodes, a mother of three young children, spoke to a Steamboat Springs audience about how opiate addiction impacted her life. She lost her brother in 2014 from an accidental opioid overdose. Ken Davis, a physician’s assistant, was at the talk. He saw three of his patients die from opioid addiction. He reached out to Rhodes and asked how he could help. Together they founded Rx Task Force to tackle what they both call “the black plague of this generation.”
More than 50 people have joined the Steamboat-based group – they are CEOs, elected officials, business owners, editors-in-chief, healthcare providers and experts in their fields – and they are contributing their know-how to fight the opioid epidemic in the Yampa Valley and help those families who are already caught in the grips of it.
“We know how many people have died, but we don’t know how many individuals or families are living with someone who is addicted or at risk of addiction, and they are suffering in silence,” Rhodes says. “One of the reasons I came forward is because I come from a caring and successful family and it happened to us. There is such a stigma attached to addiction and I want to change that. If someone close dies from cancer or a heart attack you get sympathy; if it’s a drug overdose, people turn their heads and look on in shame.”
The Surgeon General issued a call to end the opioid crisis through an initiative called Turn the Tide. As part of the initiative, healthcare professionals can take a pledge to “talk about and treat addiction as a chronic disease, not a moral failing.”
The Rx Task Force’s main goal is educating the community on opioid use and addiction. “It is much easier to solve the problem on the front end than it is to fix the problem on the back end,” Wilkinson says.
The opioid crisis has been blamed on doctors overprescribing and treating pain as the illness and not a symptom. Narcotics change the architecture of the brain. It is possible to become addicted within a seven- to 10-day period of taking narcotics like morphine, oxycodone, codeine and fentanyl. “Anyone can fall into the grasp of addiction. If you think you’re immune, you are wrong,” Davis says. Without access to prescription narcotics, individuals who are craving escapism turn to synthetic narcotics like heroin.
Smith attributes the rise in drug overdoses partly to a false sense of security provided by Narcan, an opiate antidote that can save a person who has OD’d. The line is blurred between saving lives and enabling addiction. “The use of Narcan has benefited a lot of people, but it doesn’t work for everyone and it is a false safety net for people thinking they can’t die from an overdose,” she says. Party-goers sometimes designate one person to stay cognizant and administer Narcan in case another member of the group overdoses while taking heroin. Narcan is available without a prescription.
Steamboat has seen a wave of tragedy, and the Rx Task Force wants to put an end to needless deaths. In the last five years since heroin and opioids have weaved their way into town, the community has lost parents, children and individuals who had everything to live for. Experimentation or mental health issues steered them down the wrong road. The family and friends left behind mostly watched and suffered in silence, muted by stigma, when what they needed was support.
“We have the opportunity to really change some things,” Wilkinson says. “The proactive approach works in a place like this because people listen and people want to help with keeping Steamboat safe, healthy, free from tragedy, and free from unawareness,” Rhodes says. “There are so many amazing people in this town, if you can educate even a handful, the word will spread. You can’t get that everywhere.”
Wilkinson worries that children and those who are at a low point in life are getting their hands on heroin without any understanding of the consequences it could bring. “It’s becoming part of experimentation, which kids do naturally,” he says. “Unfortunately it’s a matter of life or death – just one dose of heroin can kill you.”