Members of the community gathered at Bremerton’s Evergreen Rotary Park on Tuesday to remember those who have lost their lives to drug overdoses, and to help shed light on the stigma associated with drug use that often prevents drug users from getting help.
Organizers passed out the drug naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, which can reverse overdoses. They also passed out test strips for detecting the presence of fentanyl in drugs; the drug can be lethal if taken unwittingly since it's more potent than other opioids. The health district also offered COVID-19 vaccinations at the event.
The vigil served as a gathering of people affected by overdose deaths, said Dennis Sayler, who runs the Ostrich Bay Exchange, a clean needle exchange that serves Kitsap County. “It’s just a chance for people who have lost loved ones to get together and remember,” he said.
Passing out Narcan was an important aspect of the event, because the more people who have access to Narcan, the more opportunities there are to stop overdoses in their tracks and save lives, Sayler said. People are able to purchase naloxone from any pharmacy without a prescription thanks to a statewide order issued by the state’s health officer in 2019.
Dr. Gib Morrow, health officer at Kitsap Public Health District, spoke at the event and started by noting that overdoses don’t represent a singular disorder. “It’s part and parcel of all these other things that play into basic human existence and impacts all of us: Substance use, mental health, physical illness,” he said.
As a physician, Morrow has seen the impact of addiction firsthand. He said he worked with an endoscopy nurse in Bellingham that, unbeknownst to anyone, was using opiate drugs that were left over at the end of the day. She ended up dying a couple years after Morrow started working with her. “And it was just shocking to me, and it was unexpected and it was tragic,” he said.
Morrow said once, during the “heyday” of pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma — which has faced numerous lawsuits for its alleged role in exacerbating the opioid crisis by promoting use of the opioid painkiller Oxycontin — he had a patient with Hepatitis C. He was a veteran and had had lymphoma, chronic leukemia, and liver disease from the Hepatitis, and was taking Oxycontin.
“He left my office one day and I got a call from the coroner half an hour later that he was locked in his bathroom; they couldn’t get him out,” Morrow said. “He overdosed and spent three or four days on a ventilator in the intensive care unit before he died.”
The attitude at the time was to give everyone narcotics, “because if they walk out of your emergency room or your office in pain, your hospital administrator is going to hear about it and they’re going to get back to you,” he said.
Morrow’s most personal connection to the overdose epidemic involved his brother, who was 15 months older than him. As a college athlete, his brother sustained a concussion that left him with partial hearing loss and ringing in one of his ears. He lived with it for a number of years and went on to have a successful career. But about six or seven years ago, he was skiing with a friend and apparently sustained an injury. When he woke up, he didn’t know where he was and couldn’t hear anything; there was a “tremendous ringing in his ears that just wouldn’t stop.”
The ringing in his ears persisted, and he was unable to communicate with people. His mental health deteriorated. “It was all part of what I believe is a chronic traumatic encephalopathy — football-player brain disease,” Morrow said.
On Memorial Day 2019, Morrow’s brother told his parents he was checking into the Mayo Clinic for treatment. Instead, he ingested topical fentanyl orally in an effort to take his own life that, unfortunately, succeeded.
“It was phenomenally tragic,” Morrow said. “I mean, just beyond belief destructive and tragic to my family and me and to my parents who … God forbid anybody outlive your children. I hope that doesn’t happen to any of us.”
Morrow emphasized the importance of destigmatizing addiction. “We have to really get this out in the open,” he said. “We have to acknowledge it for what it is. We have to be supportive, we have to encourage — for people that are dependent on using drugs — that they do it as safely as they possibly can, to educate people about those opportunities for using safely, for minimizing disease transmission through needle exchanges.”
The need to eliminate the stigma associated with drug use was a common theme throughout the evening. Monte Levine, the founder of the Ostrich Bay Exchange, said, “When somebody dies from a stigmatized behavior, be it AIDS, overdose, suicide, it makes it a lot harder for those of us who are left behind with the the grieving process. And that has to do with the stigma and the shame that comes along with the behavior. Hopefully that will lessen over the years and maybe someday we will have a much better paradigm for dealing with drugs in our society that’s based on public health and not criminal behavior.”
Kaela Moontree, who runs Kitsap Public Health District’s syringe services program, reiterated that sentiment.
“We just have to eradicate stigma,” she said. “These are people. They’re not their illness. They’re not bad people trying to be good; they’re sick people trying to get well.”
Attendees had an opportunity to speak about loved ones who had died or about their own experiences with addiction. The speakers were a diverse bunch: A young man who lost a friend and family members, including his mother. A woman who lost a son; another who got clean, but whose friend didn't and died. A man who survived an overdose, but whose cousin's fiancée wasn't so lucky. A man whose stepson struggled to wrest himself from addiction’s grip, and another who overcame his own addiction and became a mental health counselor.
People created buttons with the names of their loved ones and placed them on a wreath Levine had created, a testament to the fact that they were gone but not forgotten, and serving as a reminder of how much work still needs to be done to prevent overdose deaths.
As he wrapped up the vigil, Levine once again turned to the issue of the stigma associated with drug use.
"It is so stigmatized that we hide it," he said. "When are we most likely to hide it? When we come out of treatment or jail and we've been clean for a while." He said it's estimated that a third of all overdoses happen within a week or two of leaving jail or a treatment program.
"It's going to be a long, hard road until the stigma of this behavior lessens enough that we can get a handle on overdose deaths," he said.