Dr. James McDonald didn’t use any names when he told the story of a woman who offered to help her granddaughter cope with a painful headache.
The young woman lamented she had taken Tylenol to no avail. The grandmother had had a similar experience and her doctor wrote a prescription. Grandmother hadn’t used all of the drugs; maybe taking what she had would offer the girl relief.
“Not only did she feel good, but better than she had felt in a long time,” said McDonald.
“You know what happens from here,” McDonald said, addressing an audience of counselors, teachers, law enforcement and health care policy makers in one of a series of workshops held yesterday in the first Staying Ahead of Youth Drug Trends Conference that was hosted by the Rhode Island Student Assistance Service. The daylong conference, sponsored by $45,000 in corporate donations, attracted more than 350 people to the Crowne Plaza.
McDonald’s story was designed to illustrate “drug diversion” and how the prescription monitoring program recently initiated by the state Department of Health will help keep track of Schedule 2 and 3 drugs.
“It’s never OK to share drugs,” said McDonald.
But, as his story of how the younger woman becomes a “drug seeker” illustrates, prescription drugs are falling into the hands of abusers.
McDonald, who is the chief administrative officer for the board of medical licensure and discipline, said 1,800 Rhode Islanders are using five pharmacies and five physicians to fill their prescriptions. With the monitoring system, pharmacists and physicians are able to obtain a real time record of where and how frequently prescriptions are being filled.
According to Cathy Cordy, chief of the pharmacy board, who was reached later in the day, the enrollment for the system started earlier this month. She said there is the potential of 8,000 pharmacists and people who write prescriptions in the state. Once enrolled, thanks to a government grant, they will be able to access Health Department servers that have prescription data going back as far as 2003.
“What should physicians do when they learn a patient has multiple doctors and is obtaining multiple prescriptions?” asked a member of the audience.
McDonald said that could be awkward.
“Hopefully, the physician will accept it [drug abuse] as a new disease,” and say, “We have a new situation here, do you want to talk about it?”
Further, he pointed out that, “Just because they’re [the patient] informed of the problem doesn’t mean there will be a change in behavior.”
According to the program, pharmacies will access the monitoring program before filling a prescription.
“We’re not trying to gang up on patients. We’re trying to protect the patient,” he said.
The amount of interest in the conference was a surprise to RISAS. As the agency’s executive director, Sarah Dinkage explained, the board wanted to host an event in recognition of their 25th anniversary. To their surprise, there was far greater interest than expected and, as the number of registrants increased, plans had to be adjusted with the Crowne Plaza. They got to the point where they had to turn away people.
To a breakfast crowd that filled the ballroom, Tom Coderre, who served in the Rhode Island Senate from 1996 to 2003 and in 2009 returned to the State House to serve as Chief of Staff to Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, told his personal story of addiction.
“He had a love of politics,” Coderre said, speaking in the third person. “He was an elected member of the Rhode Island State Senate. On the outside, everything about this man’s life looked perfect. However, on the inside he was tortured. So he turned – first to alcohol – and then to other drugs to cope with the stresses he was experiencing. Underestimating the power of these substances, he quickly became addicted and his life started a downward spiral. As his life began to unravel, he started to lose the things that were most important to him.”
Coderre lost his job, his health deteriorated and then he became homeless.
“He lost his spirit. He lost his freedom,” he continued. “In the end, he lost pretty much everything, even his desire to live. This man’s life, which at one time was so full of hope, became hopeless.”
Coderre talked about his road to recovery and what he has learned from it.
“We’re beginning to address, in a meaningful way, the barriers that people have to finding and sustaining their recovery. Peer recovery support services are becoming available more and more,” he said.
To applause, he said that next month Anchor Recovery Community Center would celebrate the second anniversary of opening. The center delivers a wide array of services, which are helping people find and sustain their recovery for the long term. “Let me be clear about something this morning. Prevention is recovery,” he said.
He spoke about the opening of the Anchor Learning Academy that is a “recovery high school.”
“The concept of the recovery high school is simple and makes sense. I’m sure it’s no surprise that an overwhelming percentage of students returning to school after treatment relapse on their very first day back. A recovery high school is a place that students can start over in a safe and supportive environment. It’s one strategy to engage students who have serious problems with addiction find recovery.”
Coderre acknowledged that recovery is not easy, nor is the job of those who work with young people struggling with substance abuse. When the situation seems too daunting, he urged counselors and therapists to ponder, “How much destruction is averted because of the work you do? Think of that. It’s your spring board.”