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Funeral home education series sheds light on opioid addiction

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STILLWATER — Most people are aware that opioid use is a growing problem in Minnesota communities, but addiction is a phenomenon that is not very well understood by the general public. Opioid addiction was chosen as the first topic in a new education series hosted by Simonet Funeral Home in Stillwater. 

The event was presented March 13 by Sheri Vrieze, the manager of chemical health services for Canvas Health. 

The term “opioid” is used to describe natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic narcotic medication. These drugs work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, which reduces the sending of pain messages to other areas of the body. Opioids are prescribed by doctors to manage pain and can numb both physical and psychological pain. The numb feeling can become addictive.

Vrieze said that the reason opioids are so lethal can be summed up in one word: relapse.

“If you’re using prescribed amounts, even if you’re using more than prescribed amounts, it often is not life-threatening,” she said. “People build up a tolerance. They take more and more and more to get the same effect; to get the numbed-out feeling.” 

Tolerance to the drug increases; the body adapts to handle it. It’s when a person decides to quit that things can become truly dangerous. 

Withdrawal is a brutal process, but it’s unlikely to kill someone. “You’re not going to die from withdrawal … but you’re going to feel like you want to. It’s that bad. It’s that painful,” Vrieze said.

The extreme pain and discomfort of withdrawal is often too much to handle, so people go back to the drug to get some relief. 

“They go back on the street, they find some pills, they take the dose they were using when they stopped. That’s what kills them,” Vrieze said. “Your body’s tolerance goes up really quick; it also comes down really quick.”

It can happen to anyone who has ever been prescribed a narcotic, Vrieze said. 

“This isn’t the heroin user on the street with a needle hanging out of their arm that people think of,” she said. “Which is biased and prejudiced and not accurate, by the way. … That’s not what this is. This is anybody in this room. It’s our elderly. It’s our children. Because anybody can get this.”

Overprescription is part of the problem, Vrieze said. People who go through painful procedures often receive so many narcotic painkillers that they have some left over after they no longer need them. 

A leftover bottle of pills can be sold for several hundred dollars.

Vrieze cited one study that found that 86 percent of heroin users started on prescription pain medications.

“When pills run out, you can buy heroin on the street cheaper,” Vrieze said. 

Washington County’s record of drug-involved deaths shows 236 Washington County residents died of opioid overdose between 2000 and 2016. 

“If half of the senior class of Stillwater High School died in the next 16 years, people would be up in arms. They’re not up in arms about this. Somehow, we think that addicts deserve it,” Vrieze said. 

During the presentation, Canvas Health chemical counselor Nancy Jordan shared a personal testimony about how opioid addictions affected her life. She and her sister both had frequent surgeries and were given opioids to help with their pain, which turned into addiction. Her sister decided to quit the drugs, but then relapsed and died of an overdose.

Jordan shared a few insights. “Just be careful. Don’t keep (narcotic painkillers) around your house, even if you think ‘In case I need some,’” she said. 

There are a few ways people can begin to prevent opioid overdose deaths. Vrieze suggested that people be informed and be conscious of the words they use to talk about opioid use disorders—the terminology used in common conversation can often reinforce prejudice and negative attitudes. 

“‘Dirty’ is thrown out there all the time; don’t use that word,” Vrieze said. “They’re not dirty. They’re people. They’re people with struggles. They’re people with legitimate pain.”

Ending this crisis will also require public support of policies and legislation related to opioids, such as an initiative called the Minnesota Prescription Monitoring Program, which collects information about opioid prescriptions that would keep people from getting multiple prescriptions from different doctors. Currently, it is not a requirement for medical agencies to collect this data. 

Washington County has its own responses to this issue. Law enforcement officers carry the emergency drug naloxone, which temporarily disables harmful effects to the brain in the event of an overdose.

Washington County also has an official Drug Task Force, as well as a prescription drug take-back program with collection events and four drop boxes. The drop boxes are located at the Cottage Grove Service Center at 13000 Ravine Parkway S., Cottage Grove; Forest Lake Headwaters Service Center at 19955 Forest Lake Road N., Forest Lake; Stillwater Law Enforcement Center at 15015 62nd St. N., Stillwater; and Woodbury Service Center at 2150 Radio Drive, Woodbury. There are also two new collection box at Lakeview Hospital and Stillwater Medical Group; see page 22 for details. There will be a drug take-back event 10 a.m.-1 p.m. April 28 at Mahtomedi Education Center, 1520 Mahtomedi Avenue.   

Simonet owner Betsy Mahn said that upcoming topics in this series will include Alzheimer’s and dementia in May, and an event about hospice care, TBD.

Jackie Bussjaeger is the editor of the Forest Lake and St. Croix Valley Lowdown, and can be reached at 651-407-1229 or lowdownnews@presspubs.com. 

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