Reducing opioids’ heavy toll
Ellicott City resident Barbara Allen — who lost a son, a brother and a niece to drug addiction — has become a key player in Howard County’s battle to stem the growing opioid crisis among its citizens, which includes many victims 50 and older.
She has been appointed chair of the newly formed Opioid Crisis Community Council, intended to help the county rev up its fight against the overuse of opioids. Howard County executive Allan Kittleman, who appointed Allen in February, said the opioid council “will give the community a voice.”
Since 2012, Allen, 71, has been executive director of James’ Place Inc., which helps fund recovery services and sponsors anti-addiction educational programs. She named the nonprofit for her son, who died in 2003 of a heroin and alcohol overdose.
Allen also co-chairs Maryland’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council, and serves on Howard County’s Opioid Intervention Team and on the board of The Compassionate Friends, which provides support across the country to parents who have lost a child.
Focusing on community
The new council, which had its first meeting in early April, is composed of 23 members — county residents who have lost a loved one or are helping in the recovery of addicts — and 13 advisors, who are county employees dealing with health and addiction prevention.
As of this writing, the council is considering a variety of projects. These include educational programs for seniors and the Asian community on the use and overuse of opioids, developing ways to get information about the crisis into both public and private schools, and creating an opioid “information bank” for the general public.
“We want to reduce deaths and dying from the opioid crisis — that’s absolutely critical — and to prevent others from becoming addicted,” Allen said.
She also pointed to the importance of grief counseling.
“I went through a period of feeling like I was a loser because I couldn’t save my son,” she said. “Until you’ve sat where I sat, you don’t realize that grief support is so critical to people who feel like there’s this freaking hole and it’s unfillable.”
But the process of working with state agencies, nonprofits and fellow family members of victims has, in some way, begun to fill that hole and bring her healing.
“Meeting thousands who grieve loved ones has taught me about resilience. Collaborating with coalitions at the federal, state and local levels gave me a stronger voice for solutions and hope.
“Every step taken these past years has molded me into a more effective person to lead this stellar group now serving on this council. “
Maryland has been ranked the fifth-worst state in the nation for opioid deaths. Even Howard County saw an increase of 25 percent in overdoses from 2016 to 2017, according to the latest data released by the Howard County Police Department. County deaths from overdoses rose nearly a third, from 43 to 57 in the same time period.
The powerful synthetic opioid Fentanyl accounts for most of the deaths in Maryland, according to the Baltimore Sun. Sometimes added to heroin or cocaine without the user knowing, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, and can kill those who come in contact with even small amounts of it.
While it could not be learned how many older adults are included in those growing Howard County numbers, Allen said studies show that “the fastest growing population of residents overdosing on opioids are from 49 to 55 years of age.”
She pointed out that while opioid overdoses have been experienced by people of all ages, older residents who suffer pain from recent medical procedures or conditions like arthritis are especially susceptible to becoming addicted to opioids.
Authorities on aging have noted that older people often take several medications simultaneously to treat different medical problems, and may be confused about when to take a prescribed drug. Or, they may not remember if the medication was taken, which may result in unintentional doses.
Using opioids for pain relief also introduces another layer of potential risks for older adults, including confusion, dizziness, drowsiness and falls.
An outlet for her love
Allen, who was born and raised in Phoenix, Ariz., moved to Maryland in 1990 and has lived in Howard County for the past 22 years.
She had lost a daughter in childbirth. When her son and only surviving child, Jim, died in 2003, she was at a profound low. “What do I do with the unused love and devotion that should have gone to my daughter and son?,” she asked herself.
Gradually, Allen said, she met other people who had lost loved ones to substance-related issues. And the more she spoke with them, the more of her love she could share.
And that feeling help propel her along a path with a new purpose. In addition to the love of her family, which includes a step-son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, “I am equally blessed with the friendship now of hundreds met through [The Compassionate Friends.]
“Meeting thousands of other families who lost loved ones to addiction has given me a mission,” she said.
In choosing Allen to head the opioid crisis council, County Executive Kittleman said that she was “uniquely qualified,” noting that she has “seen firsthand the suffering this epidemic brings and has worked to combat it. Her motto of, ‘No shame, or blame. Just love,’ gets the effort she will lead off to a great start.”
Drug company role
Well, Allen noted, it’s not all “no blame” in the current crisis. An increasing number of states, cities and counties — including Baltimore City and the counties of Baltimore, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Harford — have filed law suits against pharmaceutical companies for encouraging people suffering pain to use opioids without awareness of the risks.
The suit by the city of Baltimore charges that opioid manufacturers “used deceptive marketing and misleading statements that contributed to the addiction crisis which has hit the city particularly hard.” Howard County reportedly is preparing to file suit also.
She noted that years ago, the pharmaceutical industry lobbied to have degree of pain added to the four body signs — body temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate and breathing rate — used to gauge a person’s physical condition.
“Big Pharma got its way, and it was agreed that everyone should have pain medication, including opioids, which were more addictive,” she said.
The suits against the pharmaceutical companies, she noted, are reminiscent of court action against the tobacco companies, which were punished with huge fines after denying for years that cigarettes were habit-forming or caused fatal diseases.
Among Big Pharma fines was the $634 million penalty leveled against Purdue Pharma in 2007 for claiming that OxyContin, the opioid drug the Connecticut company manufactures, was less addictive than other pain medications.
But now, more than a decade later, the epidemic has only grown in intensity. Allen cites progress, however, such as the formation of the Opioid Crisis Community Council, and the many individuals and families who have been spared additional pain through the efforts of many groups.
Speaking of the mission she has found herself on, “tears spring easily to my eyes in gratitude for this journey that I could never have wished for or dreamt possible. There is no doubt that Jim, Bill and Amanda [her son, brother and niece] are guiding me forward,” Allen said.
“Today, I have a purpose that excites and motivates me, when others my age are slowing down. And I love what I do for others! I am blessed.”