By Nathan Ham
Community leaders and concerned citizens got together on Tuesday afternoon at the Best Western Mountain Lodge in Banner Elk for a special meeting to learn about and discuss the opioid abuse issues plaguing Avery County.
The meeting was sponsored by the Kiwanis Club and Rotary Club of Banner Elk and had approximately 110 people there in attendance.
A five-person panel as well as a special guest speaker, a recovering opiate addict, were there to share their thoughts on the opioid abuse problem in Avery County and some ways to start trying to fix the problem.
The panel of speakers included Dr. Charlie Baker, a well-known physician in Avery County, Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye, District Attorney Seth Banks, Kelly Icenhour, the Director of Child Protective Services at the Avery County Department of Social Services and Rep. Josh Dobson, who represents District 85 (Avery, McDowell, Mitchell counties) in the North Carolina House of Representatives.
The keynote speaker for the event was Avery County resident Miriam Stamey, who is in recovery from an addiction that nearly ended her life.
“I never set out to become a drug addict. I grew up in and around addiction and I thought I knew better. I thought I wasn’t going to become one of those people,” Stamey said.
Stamey shared her story of how she became so addicted so fast.
“At age 30, I had a toothache, and from the first pill, I was addicted to the point of an inability to not take another pill. The road I traveled carried me down a winding path of utter destruction and pain, not only for myself, but those who loved and cared for me,” she said. “My drug problem was bigger than me or anything I had ever faced and was full of some of the hardest, most painful events, experiences and feelings a person could endure.”
“Addiction took many loved ones away and out of my life, even some permanently. I lost custody of my children and it took my husband’s life. It nearly took my life on more than one occasion,” Stamey continued.
At one point, Stamey said she nearly died from an infection that started eating away at the aortic valve in her heart. The infection stemmed from intravenous drug usage. She had to endure open-heart surgery to fix the problem.
Stamey, who has been sober for 11 months, found much-needed support through God and addiction counseling.
“This was the path of self-destruction I was on, but through the midst of all the pain and heartache, I learned that nothing is too big for God, and there is no hurt, pain or empty voids he cannot heal if you ask him,” she said. “Today I stand here 11 months sober, not through my own willpower, but through the strength, guidance and assistance given to me through Christ.”
Stamey says she is currently a full-time student at Mayland Community College working towards an Associate’s Degree in human services. She was on the president’s list for high academic achievement and does all of that while also working a full-time job. Stamey is a member of Crossnore Baptist Church.
In addition to finding gainful employment and working towards a college degree, Stamey said she has regained joint custody of her 14-year-old daughter and is working on mending other family relationships that were torn apart during her time of addiction.
“I am a new person, deeply in love with the Lord, and on a new, great road that hopefully will allow me to assist others affected by this disease of addiction,” Stamey said.
After Stamey finished speaking, it was time for the panelists to share their input with interested observers and listeners in the room.
Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye spoke about some of the things that he had personally seen from the opioid crisis. Frye said that the sheriff’s office has had calls from people who have intentionally cut off parts of their fingers with axes and shot themselves in the foot just to be able to go to the emergency room to get opiates as pain relievers. He even said people have started taking their animals to veterinarian offices and getting opiate pain relievers for their animals and instead taking the medication themselves.
“Addiction, crime, lack of self worth and eventually death, that’s what the opioid crisis looks like in Avery County,” Frye said.
As Sheriff Frye pointed out, putting people in jail is never going to fix this issue by itself.
“We can’t arrest ourselves out of this problem. There is no way. Arresting addicts is not the solution to the problem. We have to work at stopping kids earlier, we have got to have social workers in the schools to help provide a structure for families, we’ve got to have rehabilitation centers where people can go to when we do find out they have a problem,” said Frye. “We dry people out in the jail all the time, we arrest them, we put them in jail, they get dried out, but then they get right back in the same environment and the same thing happens over and over again. It’s a revolving door that there is no stopping right now.”
According to Frye, Avery County is one of the first in the area to have all road officers and jailers trained in using Narcan to pull people out of an opioid overdose and potentially save their lives.
Well-known Avery County physician, Dr. Charlie Baker, shared his thoughts on the opioid crisis, acknowledging the fact that doctors have played an unfortunate role in several opioid abuse problems throughout the country.
“In the late 1980s, doctors were being roundly criticized for not paying enough attention to patients and their pain needs. It was publicly stated that we needed to be doing more, including opiates, for patients,” Baker said. “Lots of doctors, myself included, started to prescribe more of the long acting opiates. We were taught that these were not addictive, they just kept a little steady pain medication in your system.”
Baker, who has been a physician and pediatrician in Avery County for 39 years, said that the time-release medicine that was supposed to keep small amounts of the opiates in a patient’s body was quickly being abused by either chewing or crushing the pills, such as OxyContin, or dissolving it and injecting it into their veins.
“We (doctors) have been part of the problem. What we’re doing differently now, people who are on chronic pain medications will get urine drug screens to see what they’re taking and what they’re not taking. More importantly, we’re not prescribing as many opiates. We’re using more Tylenol, ibuprofen, and alternative pain relief measures such as physical therapy and acupuncture,” Dr. Baker said. “We’re part of the problem but we’re planning to be part of the solution.”
District Attorney Seth Banks echoed what Sheriff Frye said, saying that there’s just no way to arrest drug addicts and expect that will make the problem go away.
“I’m a firm believer that the traditional court system is ill-equipped to handle this problem. Throwing addicts in prison for long periods of times, in many instances, can be counter productive,” Banks said. “It is only through a multi-disciplinarian approach, where we bring medical professionals, treatment professionals, psychologists and law enforcement, around a table to address this problem, that we can have any type of success.”
Banks added that Avery County is one of the few rural counties in North Carolina that have a drug court specifically designed to deal with drug addiction crimes.
“That program has seen successful. There’s a lot of research behind our drug court program and the research indicates that it really works,” he said.
According to Banks, nearly 85 percent of the crimes that are prosecuted in Avery County and in the 24th Prosecutorial District have something to do with substance abuse.
“These are not necessarily just drug crimes, we take a step back and look at the breaking and enterings. Why are folks breaking into people’s houses? They’re trying to get that next high. We even see it reflected in violent crimes. All these things are touched in some way shape or form by substance abuse in our community. Opioid addiction is a major part of that,” Banks said.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of these opioid drug addictions are when families and children are brought into the situation.
Kelly Icenhour, the Director of Child Protective Services at the Avery County Department of Social Services, talked about those impacts on family members.
“From a child protective services standpoint, this is really an unfortunate situation. I have worked in child protective services for 14 years, and in that 14 years we have seen a major increase in the families that we are working with that we continue to see on a regular basis, and part of that is because of the inability of folks to overcome addiction,” said Icenhour.
Icenhour says that they typically see the same families a lot of the time because it’s so difficult to find the help needed to break the addictions. There are few addiction rehabilitation programs and the ones that are around have long wait lists to join the program.
“It is such a shame and it is so hard to see the struggles and not really know where to send them next for treatment because you’re exhausting all your options,” Icenhour said.
The addictions also tend to be generational, meaning that grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and siblings in the same families can be battling addiction, making it even harder to deal with the problem.
“A lot of children are born substance affected due to the parents’ opioid addiction. Unfortunately we see a lot more children going into the Foster Care system,” said Icenhour.
The final speaker was Rep. Josh Dobson, who represents District 85 (Avery, McDowell, Mitchell counties) in the North Carolina House of Representatives. He was able to speak briefly about some of the ways that North Carolina is attempting to address this problem, including the STOP Act, which was signed into law in 2017. The goal of this program is to reduce the supply of unused and misused opioids in North Carolina as well as limit “doctor shopping” where patients bounce around from doctor to doctor attempting to get more pain relievers, and improve the resources available to detect and limit inappropriate prescribing of opioids.
Dobson added that House Bill 403 (integrating health care) and Senate Bill 630 (revisions of involuntary commitment procedures) were also potential laws that could help in dealing with the opioid crisis.
“As you hear about all the politics and partisan bickering, these things are not partisan. We’ve been working with Governor Cooper, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (Dr. Mandy K. Cohen), the state senate and the state house to implement these things,” Dobson said. “This issue is too important for partisan politics so we’ve got to keep working together to make things happen. It hurts families, it breaks families apart and we have to work together to make this change.”