One person has died from a heroin overdose every three weeks in Clark County on average during the past two years, leading one local agency to expand its program to battle heroin addiction and overdoses.
Heroin use has led to a significant jump in accidental deaths. In 2009, Clark County recorded three such deaths but last year, 17 people died.
So over the past year, McKinley Hall has expanded and modified its programs, adding several staff members to take a holistic approach to treating addiction — and it’s keeping more people in the program, Chief Executive Officer Wendy Doolittle said.
“It’s really individualized care and making those attempts to address all of the areas of someone’s life and not just the addiction itself,” she said.
The heroin problem in Springfield is “extremely disturbing,” Doolittle said. The bulk of the patients who come to McKinley Hall are addicted to opiates, including pills or heroin, she said.
“When I first started 23 years ago, that number wasn’t even 5 percent,” she said. “It’s probably 60 percent today.”
With specialized treatment using suboxone, a medication approved for the treatment of opiate dependence that reduces the symptoms of addiction, the program’s retention rate has increased from about 3 to 4 percent to about 46 percent, Doolittle said.
“We’ve just really evolved where we’re trying to make sure we can help this person in every aspect of their lives so they’re able to deal with their addictions,” she said.
‘Couldn’t do it without them’
The treatment program has changed tremendously, said April Henthorne, a 26-year-old Springfield resident who has been battling a heroin addiction for the past five years.
“I’ve been coming in and out of McKinley Hall for five years and it’s just progressed and progressed,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without them. They take me back every time I go out and come back in. They’re always there with a supporting hand.”
The changes include separating the heroin program from its other treatment plans, as well as splitting the men and women.
“Everybody is the same,” Henthorne said. “We’re on the same medication and have the same type of mind frame. It’s different than when it was all mixed in. Everybody had different things going on.”
Last year McKinley Hall hired the then-retired Dr. Narinder Saini, an internal medicine specialist who has merged battling addiction with an increased focus on diet, exercise and stress management. He used a similar approach to battling heart disease in the 1990s.
He’s also training residents from Wright State on how to treat addicts, something he didn’t receive when he was in school.
McKinley Hall now is in the process of building an exercise facility with treadmills, elliptical machines and free weights. These types of activities can work in conjunction with suboxone to keep people off of drugs, Saini said.
“We don’t want them to come back again and again and again,” he said.
The program has also added psychiatrist Dr. Devinder Yakhmi to work with addicts on their mental health. About 30 percent of people who are chemically addicted also have a mental health issue, Doolittle said.
The center also added family practitioner Dr. Donald Gronbeck to help opiate addicts with several illnesses, including Hepatitis-C.
“People who haven’t seen a doctor in 14 years are able to see the doctor on site when they come in for treatment,” Doolittle said.
“It affects everything”
Springfield resident Jason Sowards, 32, has seen the effect heroin can have on not just himself, but his friends and family.
He recently attended two funerals of friends who died from heroin overdoses. He also lost his home after relapsing after being clean for nine months.
The addiction has taken a toll on both his wife and young son, he said.
“It affects everything — your financial responsibilities, your family,” Sowards said.
He’s been clean on and off for nine months at a time, but said without the suboxone program, “I couldn’t make it a week.”
This time around, he’s been clean for more than two months.
Henthorne was the homecoming queen at South High School in 2006. After her first child was born in 2007, she was prescribed pain pills. By the end of the year, she was using heroin.
Henthorne has been in-and-out of jail several times and lost custody of one of her children. She’s also been to rehab twice.
To stay clean, Henthorne said, it’s necessary to attend meetings and treatment as well as stay in touch with a sponsor.
She’s been clean for more than 90 days, and was clean for a year in the past. She understands the consequences of using drugs again.
“The next thing for me is to die,” she said. “I know that. If I go back out, I may not have a chance to come back.”
She would tell young people thinking about using “it’s not worth it.”
“Just stop,” she said.
McKinley Hall also recently began Project DAWN, which stands for Death Avoided With Naloxone.
A Naloxone kit includes a nasal spray that can potentially reverse the effects of an overdose.
The agency received a nearly $6,000 grant from the Community Health Foundation and will purchase 100 Naloxone kits to distribute to family members and friends of people addicted to heroin, giving them the power to possibly save a life.
“Sometimes folks won’t call the police for fear of going to jail or things like that,” Doolittle said.
The Clark County Substance Abuse and Treatment Coalition was started recently to fight the heroin problem. The coalition brings together 12 agencies in different sectors of Clark County to collaborate on a database to track data of certain services and how much it costs.
“This affecting all of us,” Doolittle said.
The coalition also wrote a letter to give each person with a history of opiate use who is released from the Clark County Jail.
The letter, written by Clark County Coroner Dr. Richard Marsh, tells the former inmates they have a high risk of dying from an overdose following their release because people lose tolerance to these narcotics following a short period staying clean, such as time in jail.
The letter asks people not to do drugs, but if they do it cautions them to:
• Use a smaller dose than before the “clean time.”
• Have other people around in case problems arise.
• Not use multiple narcotics, other drugs or alcohol with narcotics.
The letter also lists ways adults and youth can receive treatment services, both for drugs and mental health issues.
Of the 17 heroin-related accidental drug deaths in Clark County last year, seven were between the ages of 25 and 34.
The heroin problem is finding its way into a much younger population, Doolittle said, and many of the users didn’t grow up in the inner city or from poverty.
“They’re addicts people were less likely to think would become addicts,” she said. “I just think it shows us that the disease of addiction does not discriminate.”
McKinley Hall’s program provides child care and transportation for women looking to turn their lives around. It also provides transitional housing, which can lead to finding permanent housing.
“If a woman doesn’t have a place to live, it’s really hard to come to treatment every day and focus on getting sober,” Doolittle said.
Henthorne lives in the women’s transitional housing unit with her 10-month-old son, where they have house meetings and drug screenings.
“It’s a good, safe environment,” Henthorne said. “It’s a safe haven for us.”
The community is in dire need of transitional housing for male addicts, Doolittle said. The treatment center is working on creating transitional unit for men who are on a suboxone program.
“Sometimes they’ll go back into the environment they just left,” Doolittle said. “It doesn’t help the recovery process one bit.”
Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about opiate and heroin problems in Clark County in the past two years.
By the Numbers
49: Heroin-related accidental drug deaths in Clark County since 2009.
17: Heroin-related accidental drug deaths in Clark County in both 2013 and 2012.
7: Number of people between the ages of 25 and 34 who died of heroin-related accidents last year, the most of any age group.
Source: Clark County Coroner’s Office