Brandon community rallies to battle drug addiction

BRANDON — Brandon showed it cared this past Thursday night when roughly 60 people participated in a meeting at the Town Hall to talk about the local heroin and opiate addiction problem.
The forum was held by Brandon Cares, the community-based nonprofit group formed in August to combat Brandon’s drug predicament. With input from residents, educators, medical professionals, parents, and police, the group is trying to bring the local opiate crisis into public discussion and action through forums, social media and community organizing.
The Nov. 6 forum came just a week after the Independent printed a story about Otter Valley Union High School graduate Kyle Pinkham, a Brandon resident who is currently in his fifth stint at rehab to try and kick a heroin addiction. Among those who traveled to Brandon from Middlebury was Bill Brim, executive director of the Turning Point Center of Addison County, an addiction treatment center.
Pinkham was one of the featured speakers at the forum, along with longtime Brandon physician Dr. John Dick, and fellow addict and OV grad Pat Higgins. Each man shared his personal experiences with addiction, in Dick’s case as a parent. The doctor’s middle child, Andrew, died of an overdose of heroin and painkillers at the age of 27.
Dick also said that he was unaware of the Brandon Cares movement until recently.
“I came here to learn,” he said. “I was not aware these meetings were going on.”
If there was one big takeaway from the gathering, it was the need to get Brandon doctors to consider offering Suboxone treatments to opiate addicts. Suboxone is a medication that contains buprenorphine hydrochloride and works to reduce the symptoms of opiate dependence, but includes the ingredient naloxone to prevent misuse. It is the same drug featured in the “Hungry Heart” documentary film and used by St. Albans physician Fred Holmes with some success in treating opiate-addicted patients in Franklin County.
Although Pinkham is in his fifth rehab program, it is his first time using Suboxone and he is finding success. But he must get a ride to Rutland three times a week to see his doctors, submit to a urine test for drugs, and participate in group therapy. But Pinkham had to wait three months just to be admitted to the program, which is now full and not accepting new patients. The next closest doctor currently certified in Suboxone treatment is Dr. Emily Glick at Bristol Internal Medicine in Bristol, the only practice in Addison County that prescribes Suboxone.
Brim of Turning Point said his Middlebury program began working with Glick two years ago.
“The first year, it was 30 patients maximum,” he said. “Now, there are 100 patients.”
Brim also addressed Suboxone’s critics, who say that heroin and opiate addicts on Suboxone are merely trading one drug for another.
“Diabetics, heart disease patients — they replace a drug for a drug to stay alive,” he said.
Brim paused, and looked at Pinkham.
“Look at you,” Brim said. “Suboxone is just part of the road you’re on. Some day, you may get off of it. Maybe you won’t, but that’s OK. Look at people on antidepressants. They may be on it for the rest of their lives. People who say you’re trading a drug for a drug aren’t educated about it.”
Heroin overdoses in Vermont are on the rise with no end in sight, but a drug called Narcan is preventing that number from being even higher. Narcan contains the drug naloxone, an anti-opiate drug that when injected can revive patients who are overdosing on painkillers or heroin. But the sheer number of overdoses and the increased need for Narcan is troubling. Just last week, Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington reported using Narcan on patients 625 times between September 2013 and September 2014.
Brim said that making Narcan available at the local drug store would also help save lives locally. Currently, Turning Point gives out free Narcan kits on Wednesdays to the general public.
“The longer people decide they don’t want to get educated about their community, the worse it’s going to get for the kids,” Brim said. “Doctors in Brandon shouldn’t be fearful of doing (a Suboxone program) in Brandon.”
And while Pinkham’s story captured the attention of many, Pat Higgins’ story is different. Unlike Pinkham, he was not a well-liked student athlete during his dates at Otter Valley, he said.
“My story is totally different than Kyle’s,” said Higgins, 36. “I was a punk kid back then. I hurt my back and was prescribed Oxycontin.”
Higgins, a Chittenden resident, said that one prescription of the powerful painkiller sparked over a decade of addiction.
“I don’t remember my first kiss,” he said, “but I remember the first time I was prescribed Oxycontin. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Higgins proceeded to explain how the next 15 years of his life were spent using drugs and becoming very familiar with local police. He has three children, now ages 16, 11 and seven, and at one time thought the best thing was to leave them and Brandon.
“Stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, stroking his long, red beard, which accents the closely cropped hair on his head. “I’ve been a junkie all across America, and it’s no different than here. It’s all the same.”
Higgins said that once an addict has made the important decision to get clean, the bureaucracy of waiting for treatment has to be streamlined.
“There needs to be a way to get from leaving jail to a rehab hospital bed in under a month’s time,” he said.
For him, the choice to stop using came after he had compiled a lengthy police rap sheet and let down his family too many times.
“There came a point when I had done enough jail time … 10 months,” he said. “I had literally stolen every single thing out of my mother’s house. That is not an exaggeration.”
Higgins said he found Dismas House, a residential center for former inmates in Rutland, and there he found people that cared about him, so he started caring about himself. That is key, he said.
“People cared, the community cared, and that made the difference,” Higgins said. “All of you guys need to pay attention and care. If your neighbor’s house was on fire, would you close the curtains? That’s the solution. If you see someone down and out and they’re using, ask them if you can help.”
Higgins then strengthened the mission of Brandon Cares with one sentence.
“I know that when there’s an entire community caring about you, you have no choice but to be accountable,” he said.
The next Brandon Cares meeting will be held on Monday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. at the Brandon Boys and Girls Club on Rossiter Street. For more information, contact Sue Gage, 247-3834, or [email protected].
Other key facts from the Brandon Cares forum:
•  Walk down any street in Brandon with your head down and, eventually, you will see small, wax paper baggies on the sidewalk and in the gutter. Those baggies once contained heroin.
•  It costs about $150 for an addict to buy enough heroin to get high, and another $50-$75 to maintain the addiction, for a day.
•  While Kyle Pinkham was waiting to get into a Suboxone treatment program, he was using heroin every day.
•  Pat Higgins once put his right pinky finger between two children’s building blocks and hit it with a hammer, breaking it, just so he could get another prescription for the painkiller Percocet.
•  The heroin dealers in Brandon know that they are not welcome. Higgins said they know they will eventually be arrested, but that their goal is to make as much money as they can before that happens.
•  The number of people who signed up to be a part of Brandon Cares doubled after the Nov. 6 meeting.

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