Former heroin addict sees progress
RUTLAND/BRANDON — Kyle Pinkham is sitting at a desk at the new Burlington Labs office in Rutland, wearing a black sweater, khaki pants and huge grin.
Yes, Pinkham is smiling, something he refused to do six months ago when he first sat down with The Reporter to talk about heroin addiction and all it has cost him, including his teeth.
To say Pinkham has come a long way in a short time would be an understatement. He is not a client of the Burlington-based drug testing company, he is an employee in recovery with a car of his own and, for the first time in years, hope for the future.
It all started with a phone call to Brandon Cares founder Sue Gage. The local community action group was formed last summer to help Brandon opiate addicts like Pinkham, who needed a ride to his mandatory drug-testing and recovery meetings in Rutland. They are a requirement of the suboxone treatment Pinkham receives through the medical offices of Drs. Mark Logan and Dean McKenzie in Rutland. 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 that St. Albans physician Fred Holmes, featured in the documentary film “The Hungry Heart,” used with some success in treating opiate-addicted patients in Franklin County.
Thanks to suboxone and a caring community, Pinkham has not used heroin in eight months.
LOCAL TOOTH FAIRY
But as important as staying sober and working at a job have been, there was another hurdle Pinkham needed to clear first. One obvious and tragic side effect of opiate abuse is tooth decay, and Pinkham was no exception. At 26, his teeth had turned to mush, cracked, and turned brittle and brown. He was so ashamed of his “drug teeth,” as he called them, that he got very good at speaking with his lips close together, so his teeth would always stay hidden. And he never, ever smiled broadly. It was more like a wry, side smile, one corner of his mouth turning ever so slightly and briefly upward.
After Pinkham’s story appeared in the Reporter last October, the response was swift. Almost 100 people attended the next Brandon Cares meeting at the Brandon Town Hall. Pinkham spoke and told his story. There were two key people in the audience that night. One was Tae DeGray, community coordinator for Burlington Labs in Middlebury.
“I heard Kyle speak and I thought, ‘That’s someone who could work for us,’” DeGray said.
The other person in attendance that night was a local woman who would become Pinkham’s “Tooth Fairy.” She has requested that she remain anonymous.
“She had read the Reporter article and came up to me after the forum,” Pinkham recounted. “She asked for my information and said she would contact Dr. Brian Saltzman in Middlebury and have my dental bills sent to her.”
In the ensuing months, Pinkham had four appointments with Saltzman. Impressions of his teeth were made, then all of his top teeth were removed. A full plate was created, which Pinkham wears proudly.
“Dr. Saltzman was awesome,” Pinkham said. “He’s the only dentist I felt comfortable getting the extractions done with.”
On April 17, Pinkham will return to Saltzman’s office for two root canals on two of his lower teeth. The rest will be removed, a plate will be made that will attach to the two remaining teeth, and Pinkham’s dental work will be finished.
Burlington Labs’ Rutland office on Merchants Row across from the courthouse is the 11th location in the state that the drug-testing company has opened since it was founded in 2006.
But Burlington Labs is far from being just another business in Vermont. Co-founders Michael and Jodie Casarico have personal ties to both addiction and recovery. In 2006, Michael Casarico was working as a parole officer and counselor when one of his parolees failed a required drug test for cocaine. Despite the man’s assurances that he had not used drugs, he was sent back to jail, lost his job and was separated from his family.
Two weeks later, it was determined that the test was, in fact, a false positive. Casarico vowed to try and optimize the drug-testing culture. He and his wife cashed in their retirement accounts and all of their savings and opened Burlington Labs in 2006. Now, among those 11 locations statewide, the company boasts 135 employees, many of whom, like Kyle Pinkham, are in recovery.
In a phone interview last week, Michael Casarico said the mission of the company has remained unchanged since it began.
“We love taking chances on people,” he said of the company’s hiring process. “It doesn’t always work out, but it often does. All of these people are doing something to try and turn their lives around. We have yet to regret giving people a chance.”
Burlington Labs also donates 10 percent of its profits back to the communities it serves. And now, the company is launching a ride program to help ease the transportation problem that Pinkham and so many others face in trying to get and stay clean.
But despite their best efforts, the Casaricos are fully aware that their business relies on an overwhelming opiate problem in Vermont and across the country. More and more clients and businesses are requiring weekly drug testing of employees.
“It is unfortunate and I’ve said from the very beginning that it would be the best day ever if we could put ourselves out of business,” Casarico said. “There is no need to do this except that there is a need.”
It was Tae DeGray, the company’s community coordinator, who first brought the idea of starting a ride program to the Casaricos. She is also a member of the Addison County Addiction Treatment Committee.
“Transportation was something that kept coming up, so I took it to Burlington Labs and the Casaricos are making it happen,” she said. “They don’t just want to run the testing. They believe recovery is possible and they want to make community awareness and access to treatment as easy as possible and available to anyone who wants it.”
The company is in the process of securing insurance for the ride program, which has been a challenge, and are looking to purchase a van and hire a full-time driver. When it is up and running, the ride program will offer routes from Middlebury to Bristol Internal Medicine, Addison County’s sole suboxone provider. There will also be rides available for Middlebury-based Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the counseling at the Counseling Service of Addison County, and drug testing appointments. Casarico said he hopes to have the program up and running before summer.
Eventually, Burlington Labs hopes to expand the ride program into Brandon and more broadly in Rutland County.
There are no grants or municipal funds being received for the program. Burlington Labs is paying for the program out of its own pocket.
BRIGHT SMILE, BRIGHTER FUTURE
Back at the Rutland Burlington Labs office, Kyle Pinkham couldn’t be happier, but there is one more hurdle, and that is getting his own place. Pinkham has been living at home with his parents in Brandon, and said their support has made all the difference. He also credits his girlfriend, Leah Champine, for sticking by him, and the folks at Vocational Rehab for helping him get into work mode. And then there is the Brandon community at large and the people at Brandon Cares.
“My parents have been really awesome,” he said shaking his head. “And I wouldn’t be where I am without my girlfriend. Group counseling has been really important. I’ve used all of this support 100 percent and I haven’t abused it. I could be taking more than I need, but it was what I needed.”
Pinkham hopes that maybe within a year he will be ready to live in his own apartment, but he is very aware that this kind of progress can’t be rushed.
“I feel like once I have my own place, I’ll have everything back that I lost,” he said earnestly. “New teeth, new job, and my own place.”
But Pinkham has also kept the bigger picture in the forefront of his recovery, the whole reason that Brandon Cares and Burlington Labs has evolved — the opiate crisis, and he said he sees progress.
“That Reporter article really helped and the community has been so supportive,” Pinkham said humbly. “I got really awesome feedback and a lot of doors opened because of it. Now, I don’t see as many drug deals, I don’t hear about as many overdoses and accidents — I hear more about recovery, and I think things are getting better.”
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