After 11 Overdoses In Brattleboro, Officials Say There Will Be More

Jul 13, 2017

There were 11 overdoses in Brattleboro over the Fourth of July weekend, and as eye-popping as that number is, officials who are dealing with the opioid crisis every day say they weren't surprised.

Greg Leduc is director of Habit Opco, a methadone clinic in Brattleboro, and he says with the potent strains of fentanyl-laced heroin on the street there will likely be even more casualties.

"I thank God there were only 11," he says from his office.

One of the people who overdosed on the Fourth died, and just this week there was another overdose death up the road in Londonderry.

Leduc says every time he hears about one of these tragedies, he comes into work praying that it's not one of the patients from his clinic. "I get close on different levels to the people who actually chose to come here, and I worry if it's them," he says. "Every single one of them will pass by my door on their way to get medicated, and when I see them, I'm grateful that they made it back."

Habit Opco is one of state's distribution points for Narcan, a prescription drug that's used to save people who've overdosed. Vermont gives it out to anyone, for free.

Kaileigh Fitch is a nurse here who trains people how to use it and she says when a
bunch of people die there's a spike in requests. But Fitch says, it usually doesn't last too long.

Kayleigh Fitch is a nurse who trains people how to use Narcan, a drug that can save the life of someone who has overdosed.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"Every time there's something in the news about it, we see maybe four or five times as much for a short period of time after the news comes out," says Fitch. "And then it tapers off and then something else happens, and people want to get out there and carry it again."

Richard Baum, the U.S. "drug czar," was in Vermont this week and he said Vermont is a model in confronting the opioid epidemic that's spread to every corner of the country.

But with all the treatment centers, prevention programs and support the state is offering, officials who are on the ground dealing with this every day say we should still be prepared to bury more Vermonters before anyone can claim victory.

Louis Josephson is CEO of The Brattleboro Retreat, which operates one of the busiest drug treatment centers in the state.

"I think we're all frustrated in my field that we don't have that slam dunk treatment where you come in, we give you this medication, we give you this counseling regimen and you're just cured and you walk off into the sunset," says Josephson. "We've got the the best counseling program here, but we know it's going to take some time."

There are still regions in Vermont where there's a waiting list to receive treatment. In Brattleboro, Josephson says that treatment is available but people have to come in on their own and get it. And every time someone dies from an overdose, Josephson hopes that there's one more reason for someone else dealing with addiction to take that step.

"I only hope when I hear these headlines that people who are struggling with addiction say, 'Oh my God. That could have been me. I've got to get some help,'" he says. "We're trying to do whatever we can to lower barriers to get people in here and feel comfortable about coming and getting treatment."

The Retreat asked some of its patients what the hospital could do to make it easier to come get treatment, and many parents said that childcare was an issue.

"I think we're all frustrated in my field that we don't have that slam dunk treatment. We've got the the best counseling program here, but we know it's going to take some time." - Louis Josephson, Brattleboro Retreat CEO

So on the other side of the Retreat's sprawling campus Kay Curtis is setting up a new childcare center for kids whose parents are receiving their daily Suboxone treatment for their addiction. This will be the first childcare center in the state, and maybe one of the first in the country, devoted specifically to families who are fighting addiction.

Curtis says it will give parents a safe place to leave their kids, and maybe one less excuse for not showing up for their treatment. "It's a whole new idea," she says. "We have no idea what this is going to look like until the first child arrives and says, 'This is what I want.' Or 'This is what I  need.' And so we're going to be very good at listening to the families and see what will make a difference for them. We want to keep them in treatment. We want them to get better. We don't want this to happen to families."

So this is the new normal. No waiting lists. Free Narcan. And childcare for addicts in treatment.

And for the ambulance services who are usually the first ones to reach an overdose victim, it means being prepared for whole different kind of emergency. "We're telling the staff to watch the scenes we're on, and just be careful out there because some of these scenes we're finding a lot of drug paraphernalia," says Drew Hazelton, operations chief at Rescue Inc., an ambulance service that covers 15 towns in southern Vermont.

The crisis means Hazelton is spending more time responding to overdoses and mental health crises.

"We've got a lot of equipment and a lot of personnel on the road to help deal with these emergencies which quite often are coming in very quickly," he says. "We get multiple calls at the same time, in all corners of our response area. So it's certainly challenging for the system."

Like the other people who were interviewed for this story, Hazelton thinks the problem could get worse before it gets better.

And he says his staff will do their best to keep people alive today, in the hopes that they can get the treatment they need tomorrow.