INDIANAPOLIS — Fentanyl continues to devastate communities across Indiana.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Indiana hit a record-high for a second year in a row, with an estimated 2,750 Hoosiers dead from drug overdoses.
Fentanyl is killing Americans at record rates. Many of them didn't know they were taking the deadliest drug our county has ever seen.
The Drug Enforcement Administration recently declared the first ever National Fentanyl Awareness Day in the U.S. to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl, now found in all 50 states.
Drug traffickers are increasingly mixing it with other drugs to drive addiction and attract repeat buyers.
Cammie Wolf Rice, who grew up on the south side of Indianapolis, knows the reality of drug addiction all too well.
She lost her son, Christopher, to the drug epidemic and now dedicates her life to ending these tragedies through the Christopher Wolf Crusade.
"He fought it every single day, and the medicine hijacked his brain. I mean, it literally hijacked his brain," Rice said.
Rice said stopping the addiction before it happens is the only way — and it all too often starts with a prescription.
"He went home from the first major surgery with 90 oxytocin, and it was right when Purdue Pharma released the 'wonder drug,' and doctors weren't told it was addictive," Rice said. "I was told to give them to him every four hours. So I was feeding them to him. And then he got 90 more. Eighty percent of heroin users started with a prescription, and Christopher was one of those."
Rice said Christopher was in and out of rehab five times before he lost his life to an overdose.
It took Rice two years to be able to get out of bed and realize she needed to go on, for her son – fighting the drug overdose, but also the stigma associated with the disease of addiction.
"The stigma in our country is so horrific that it took me two years to say the word 'overdose.' I didn't want any of my family to know. I didn't want my friends to know because I didn't want my son to have a disrespected death. How sad is that," she said.
When opioid addicts can no longer get their high through prescriptions, they turn to street drugs – now more than ever spiked with deadly fentanyl.
EMTs with the Bargersville Community Fire Department say they often visit homes several times to save the same overdose patient.
"A lot of times, people are prescribed drugs and when that prescription runs out, if an addiction occurs, then they start trying to find it from somewhere else," EMT Andrew Ankney said. "And unfortunately, when they buy it, [they] buy it from somewhere other than a reputable pharmaceutical company. They often end up getting something laced with a deadly fentanyl mixture ... not what they thought they were buying."
His partner, EMT Amanda Taylor, said it's a tragic and heartbreaking scene, especially when an overdose occurs in a home.
"More often than not, it's parents finding their kids or friends find other friends," Taylor said. "A lot of times, they don't know what to do. So, it's important for everyone to know the signs of an overdose."
And if friends or families don't know what to do, it's often fatal.
If too much time passes before they are found, they will die from the overdose.
But a free, easy-to-get drug called Narcan can save an overdose patient's life.
Having it available in every home and business is a passion for Rice.
"I believe everyone, everyone should have Narcan. It should be in every household.
"Parents, I will say directly to you if you say, 'Well, not my child.' OK. I didn't think I'd be sitting here having this conversation either," Rice said. "It might not be for your child. It might be for the neighbor across the street. It might be for your child's best friend that you had no idea they were taking something, but it tells your lungs to breathe in an overdose situation."
But she also knows Narcan is not an answer to the drug epidemic. Rice believes you have to connect with the people who are most likely to become addicts.
Her organization, Christopher Wolf Crusade, has run a two-year pilot program inside Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta to get care coaches in every single hospital in the U.S. to work hands-on with patients for pain management, so opioids are not always the answer.
"In our country, we use coaches for everything," Rice said. "We have an executive coach, a birthing coach, a diet coach, a workout coach, but when you're in a health crisis, you have no coach. Nurses don't have time. Doctors don't have time. And so, I built the position on everything Christopher did not have as a patient in the hospital. If I had a care coach for Christopher, he'd still be alive today."
The program was a success.
"At the end of the trial, Grady Hospital hired them to be on staff, so they saw the benefit," she said. "They saw the opioid utilization rate decrease; they saw less people going back to the ER for pain management. You've got to give people other techniques for pain than taking a pill and that is non-addictive. And so that's what we do. We have a toolkit of all kinds of techniques to help with anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD, which appear in the hospital, you have all those things, and you need somebody there to help you deal with your pain besides taking an opioid."
The study shows there are often much deeper-rooted issues for patients that contribute to someone turning to drugs to cope.
"What happened is, while we spend time with patients, we uncover so many other needs, food insecurity, housing insecurity, domestic violence, you know, that they would have normally fallen through the cracks at a hospital because they just don't have the time to to deal with that. Life care specialists are so needed in our health care system for many reasons," Rice said.
"We show that cost savings to the hospital, if only two people don't come back to the ER for pain management, you've paid for the life care specialist for a year. So, we've done the economics with this. It's affordable, it's something you cannot afford not to do," Rice said.
And if not, more and more families are going to be left with the anguish of losing a loved one to drug addiction.
Rice also just released a book called "The Flight." It's a story of her personal journey through the opioid epidemic. Rice details the events that led to the creation of Christopher Wolf Crusade and her mission of ending opioid dependence.
Most county health departments have free Narcan available for anyone who asks for it.
There are also strips available for drug users to test their drugs to see if they have been tainted with the deadly fentanyl.
You can find the links to those resources here.