Elon University held a talk Monday, April 16, to discuss the opioid crisis and how it affects North Carolinians every day.

“Opioid Epidemic in North Carolina” featured two guest speakers, Dr. Andrew Lamb, vice president of Medical Affairs for Alamance Regional Medical Center, and Kerri Sigler, owner and attorney at Sigler Law and founder and president of the Board at Rising Phoenix.

Jason Husser, assistant professor of Political Science and Policy Studies, began the talk by providing some statistics on opioid overdoses as well as the results of a survey the university conducted in November.

“We picked the topic not because it is the most pleasant topic — in fact, it is a very unpleasant topic to ask strangers what they think about opioids — but we conducted it because of some numbers I am going to share with you, which hopefully will convey the extent of this social issue going on right now,” Husser said.

He explained that according to the CDC, from 1999 to 2016, more than 350,000 people died from overdoses involving opioids, both prescription and illicit opioids, and about 66 percent of the more than 63,000 drug overdoses in 2016 involved opioids.

“Three people die in North Carolina every day from an opioid overdose,” Husser said. “349,000 North Carolina residents reported misusing prescription and pain relievers.”

The survey, which involved 771 North Carolina voters, revealed that most voters feel there’s not enough coverage in news and politics about opioids, Husser said.

“Almost one-third of North Carolina voters said opioids personally impacted a friend, family members or themselves,” Husser said. “A majority of voters see abuse in prescription pain pills as a larger problem than heroin.”

Husser went on to say that less than two-thirds of voters did not think that their communities had adequate resources to deal with the crisis, and that most voters think that the illegal use of prescription drugs should be dealt with by the medical system rather than the criminal justice system.

 

Personal standpoint

Lamb shared a personal anecdote that he first gave Dec. 8 at the county Leadership Forum on Opioid Abuse.

The anecdote was a letter made to sound like it was coming from a colleague when it really was from Lamb, talking about his struggle to overcome opioid addiction back in 2009 after a slipped disk in his leg.

“I want to talk today not from the facts about the opioid crisis, which are overwhelming enough. I want to talk about a personal standpoint, a human standpoint, and the impact that this crisis has,” Lamb said.

Lamb began reading the letter, which talked about how he went into surgery for his disk and became addicted to painkillers, particularly Oxycontin.

“What surprised me, though, was how good it made me feel. It had a calming effect also,” Lamb read. “I would be at home enjoying the feeling, and I rationalized that there is nothing wrong with that. Besides, I could stop when I wanted.”

Lamb said he took advantage of his refill and found himself counting his remaining tablets, knowing he would run out eventually.

“I used the last pill, and within 24 hours, I began having withdrawal symptoms: restlessness and abdominal pain, diarrhea,” Lamb read. “I never imagined I could become physically and mentally dependent. I thought this only happened to people who were weak.

“It was a surreal experience in addition to being a scary and humbling one,” Lamb continued. “Surreal because I never thought it would happen to me, and humbling because it … gave me a new perspective of those who struggle with addiction.

“If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. No one is immune.”

 

Drug treatment court

Sigler next addressed the audience and talked about her experiences as a public defender in Forsyth County, where she would represent opioid addicts.

“I was representing a lot of heroin addicts, and they looked like you people,” Sigler said. “They were really young, they were nicely dressed, they were college-educated, and they were skeletal. They were thin. They were sitting behind plate glass in the same blue jumpsuit that the homeless guy who hasn’t showered in four years was wearing the week before. It was one after another.”

She said in January 2016, not a day went by when she wasn’t appointed to someone who was an addict, or learn that someone she was representing was stealing because of being an addict and wanting money to buy more drugs. Of those cases, 85 percent began their addictions by having medical procedures and being given painkillers, Sigler said.

“What their doctors were not telling them when they prescribed this at 18, 19, 20 years old is that a powerful narcotic is not an antibiotic. Antibiotics, you have to take the whole thing.

“If you get 60 Vicodin, God help you if you take 60 Vicodin,” Sigler said. “They are the exact reverse as antibiotics. You take as few as you can get away with, and you get rid of them. Get them out of your sight.

“Of course, none of these kids knew that. One after another, I was flooded with kids.”

Sigler then explained that once her clients were addicted, their supplies would run out, and they would turn to heroin instead.

However, because of an increase in fentanyl mixed with heroin, her clients started to die. She recalled a drug treatment board that used to help addicts but went defunct because the state stopped funding it.

“There was not a day in the courthouse that one of us — a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a judge — didn’t know personally someone who died,” Sigler said.

Sigler eventually launched Phoenix Rising, an attempt to restart the drug treatment program to help addicts. She talked about how she, along with help from several others, formed a nonprofit organization, and raised awareness and funds for the program.

“Dec. 1, we started,” Sigler said. “It was 13 months from sitting down at my desk and going, ‘We are going to start drug court,’ to starting drug court.”

Sigler told the audience that their takeaway from her talk should be that, whether it is opioids or another topic, they should not let others, particularly online, stop them from succeeding.

“If you want something accomplished, I am here to tell you that, yes, you can do it,” Sigler said. “If you want to do it, you can do it. If you care about it, you can do it.”

 

Reporter Kate Croxton can be reached at kate.croxton@thetimesnews.com or 336-506-3078. Follow her on Twitter at @katecroxtonBTN.