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HeartBeats Episode 24: Recovery Month: Recovery is for Everyone!

HeartBeats: Shipley Cardiothoracic Center Podcasts


Welcome, I'm Cathy Murtagh Schaffer and I'm your host for this episode of HeartBeats. This podcast is brought to you by Shipley Cardiothoracic Center, an educational series dedicated to providing our patients and the community with information and education about our cardiothoracic surgery program, Lee Health and matters affecting your health. This September is national recovery month and the theme is recovery is for everyone, here in our community I know Al Kinkle from Kimmy's recovery zone was planning an all-day event for September 25th at Lakes Park here in Fort Myers. However, due to the rising numbers of COVID cases, I believe this is now going to be a virtual event. He'll be here to talk about that a little later on. I also know that nationally faces and voices of recovery are helping to mobilize various events around the country to help bring attention to recovery from addiction, in keeping with the theme of recovery here at Shipley, we wanted to do our part as well. And since I'm the project coordinator for substance abuse within Lee Health, we thought it would be fun to have a guest host, to talk with me about the mental health issue of addiction. So I'm very happy to introduce everyone to Kristin Stubbs, our Community Outreach Coordinator, and my colleague and friend who will lead the podcast today. Kristin, it's all yours.


Thank you Cathy for inviting me onto this podcast with you today, besides the persistent issue of COVID within our community. I don't think there's a more important topic to discuss than addiction. National figures of drug overdose in 2020 or 93,000 people dead. The highest number we had prior to that was in 2017, at 72,000. COVID, isolation, lack of resources, anxiety, depression, and the increasing use of fentanyl and street drugs are behind the exponential increase. Cathy, when you first became the coordinator for this project, you were writing articles in the News-Press about addiction called Dear Miss. Cathy, why was it important to start talking to the community about substance use?


So Kristin, I started writing those articles for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted to offer access to a reasonable voice to those, with questions. Two, too. I thought if I could reach out and demonstrate that recovery can happen, it would encourage those who are on the fence about seeking help. And thirdly, I wanted to start the community talking to each other. I think this particular letter demonstrates the difficulty that small communities have when discussing drug addiction and overdose. It reads "Dear Miss. Cathy, I recently lost my 19 year old son to opioid overdose. I knew he was struggling, but I never thought it was because of drugs. I live in a very small tight-knit community. And while my neighbors have been a tremendous support during this time, I realized that nobody wants to talk about what caused his death. Perhaps it's because everyone is shocked to find out that drugs are in our community, and nobody knows what to say. We tend not to have a lot of exposure to the world outside our community. So it may be our thinking is a bit behind the times, but I think we need to start talking. For many reasons, I don't think my son's death is going to be a singular episode in this community. How do I get these people to start talking about the problem? If we don't confront it, we can't do much about it, In my opinion. I don't want to lose another one of our beloved children. Signed Scared. Dear Scared, I'm so sorry for your terrible loss. No mother should have to go through what you are experiencing. I hear the grief in your letter, in my heartbreaks for you. You're right, it's hard to get small communities to face up to the possibility that they have been invaded by drugs. However, you should know, it's not just you. There is a national crisis and it has trickled down to the smallest of communities in 2017 72,000 people died of drug overdose. Last year in 2020, 93,000 people died of drug overdose. And just to put that net number in perspective, 58,000 people died in the Vietnam war. There are 92,000 children living in foster care because their parents are suffering with addiction. The reality is we need everyone to wake up to the fact that we literally have an invasion of opioid misuse and abuse in this country. We also need to realize that drug addiction is a medical problem, not a social problem. People become addicted to drugs because the drugs change their brain chemistry. Not because they made a choice to become an addict. I think once people begin to realize this is a medical problem, they'll feel more comfortable talking about it. My suggestion for you get together with some close friends and talk with them about your concerns, share with them, your emotions, tell them that they can help you move on by helping you spread the word about addiction. Let them know you're concerned that their child might be next. But as a group, you can help each other stop this horrible epidemic. Reach out to your community leaders, fire chiefs, EMS personnel, community clinics, and get people to come talk to your group. I send my deepest heartfelt condolences for your loss, and my prayers are with you signed Ms. Cathy."


That is a heartbreaking story. Do you think your letters have had any impact on the community? Do you see more discussion about drug overdose and drug use?


My answer is yes and no. Prior to the outbreak of COVID, we were making some huge leaps in getting the word out about drug abuse and its effects. One of my main goals at the time was trying to decrease the stigma around addiction. For too long we've considered addiction a choice when really it's a brain disease, just like depression or anxiety. It's about deranged brain chemistry due to the drugs. I will say, however since COVID our attention has been diverted, but the reality is the problem is still out there and it's worse. That's why I'm excited about recognizing national recovery month. It brings attention to the problem, but also the day is really about hope, that recovery can and does happen every day. It also provides the opportunity to educate people, the community, healthcare providers, family members, who are suffering with a loved one's addiction and our legislative community.


So there's a lot of talk about Narcan these days. I understand that utilizing nasal spray Narcan can actually save someone's life and that Lee Health has instilled some processes that ensure patients have access to Narcan. Can you talk a little bit about that?


You know, since we started an addiction medicine program here at Lee, we've made some really important strides with the help of our strategic council for substance abuse and recovery. We've been able to implement several processes and programs. One of the most important is access to Narcan, dispensing Narcan to those who we identify as high risk for possible overdose is a life-saving device for patients going home on narcotics. For those patients with known opioid use disorder, it's an absolute must to have. Families need to know about this and should be discussing with their primary care physicians, obtaining a prescription for Narcan. One of the very valuable things coming from Kimmy's recovery zone is Ale Kinkles tireless dispensing of Narcan in the community. I think you can go to KRC website and send an email to him, asking for Narcan and he'll get it to you. But the bigger question is where can people go to get help with their addiction? I think this next letter answers some of those questions. "Dear Miss. Cathy, I'm 19 years old and started drinking and smoking marijuana in eighth grade, I started using heroin in 11th grade and never graduated from High School. My parents have kicked me out and most nights I sleep on a friend's couch or in shelters. Heroin gives me a feeling of peace and I really never wanted to stop using it until recently. A A friend of mine stopped breathing within minutes of shooting up right in front of me. We called 911, but it was too late. His mix of heroin was full of fentanyl and now I'm scared this could happen to me. I didn't think I wanted to quit, but now I'm nervous about where I can turn for help. I'm ready to try to get sober, but I also don't want to be arrested. What can I do? - Scared.

Dear Scared, I applaud the fact that you're thinking about quitting and you're right to be scared. The Fort Myers police department tells me there is more fentanyl on the streets and more people are overdosing and dying because of fentanyl. Until you're ready to quit, I want to offer you some safety tips. Don't share your needles. Don't use dirty water to cook your drugs. When you siphon your mix into the syringe, don't use dirty cotton balls and wipe your equipment down with alcohol, don't lick your needles. If you do the above things, you might save yourself from acquiring HIV, hepatitis or worst of all endocarditis, a heart infection that requires heart surgery. Most importantly, get a Narcan kit from a pharmacy or clinic to carry with you at all times. It may save your life or you may save someone else's. If you're ready to quit, get in touch with our Addiction Medicine Clinic, Operation Par, or go to the Emergency Room where we can assist you. You will not be arrested for seeking help. It's tough work entering into recovery, but it's better than dying. I certainly hope you'll decide on recovery. My prayers are with you signed Miss. Cathy"


For you, what is the saddest part of addiction?


To me, the saddest part of addiction is the pain that's underneath the substance use. Many people who are suffering from addiction are also suffering from the scars of trauma or some type of psychological injury. I'm not sure if the real tragedy doesn't lie within the families of those who are suffering from a loved one's addiction. For example, I would say this is probably one of the saddest letters I ever received. "Dear Miss Cathy I have been reading your articles and I appreciate your interest in bringing attention to this overwhelming problem. I want to write to you about the other side of the addiction problem; accidental poisoning. Two years ago I lost my four-year-old son. Jason was such a happy little boy and he knew nothing of the dark world of addiction. Unfortunately, his older brother whom he adored did. My eldest son was 16 when Jason died. Robbie had a stash of pills in his room – mostly prescription narcotics. My husband and I knew that he was experimenting; we had caught him smoking marijuana when we came home early one weekend from a party. We talked to him about the dangers of drugs and how important it was that he set an example for his little brother. We had no idea he was using Oxycontin. But in the spring of 2017, my darling Jason wandered into his brother’s room found his “stash” and took an overdose of pills. He died a week later in the intensive care unit. Needless to say my oldest son is and always will be grief-stricken and guilt-ridden. My husband and I are trying hard to move past our rage and our grief. Trying to get on with our lives, but it’s hard. Maybe this is my first step in trying to make sense out of his death; by warning others about accidental poisonings. Maybe Jason’s death will save another four-year-old from the same fate. I don’t know. But I wanted to share this with you and your readers.- Grief Stricken

Dear Grief Stricken

I hear many sad stories in my line of work but yours is truly one of the saddest. So many lives devastated all in an instant because of addiction.The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse says that in 2016 alone, there were more than 30,500 reports to poison control centers of young children exposed to addictive substances. In general, opioids are among the most toxic substances for young children who are very susceptible to their effects, which can be lethal in small doses. My heart goes out to you, your husband and your oldest son. I can’t imagine the amount of guilt and shame he is struggling with. You don’t say whether he has been able to get into recovery, I hope so – he is going to need help overcoming the heavy remorse he must be carrying around in his head and heart. As for you and your husband, I hope you too have found your way to counseling. Not only for the grief and loss you are feeling but also so you can find forgiveness for your oldest son. How difficult it must be to love your child and feel such hateful emotions at the same time. You mention your rage – it’s so important to find a way to let go of that. I hope writing this letter is a first step in that direction for you. Words just cannot convey the sorrow I feel for your loss. To the rest of my readers, I cannot stress enough how curious young children are. Everything goes in their mouths, you cannot assume it won’t. So get the laundry pods out of the way, put your prescription medicines up high and out of reach, safety lock your cabinets. If you are using drugs and have small children in the house you are putting their lives in jeopardy. If you insist on using, put your stuff away where it can’t be found or handled and have a Narcan kit in the house. Your child’s life may depend on it. - Miss Cathy


Oh my goodness, that story just breaks my heart.

Cathy, You're always telling me that recovery happens every day. What gives you that hope for what seems like such an overwhelming disease process?


Hmmm.... that's a great question, Kristin, I guess because I'm one of those people who wants to believe in a better world and hope is essential to that belief. I also know from experience that hope is real and has impact. For instance, this letter was written during the 2019 holiday season, but I think it reflects why I hang on to hope. "Dear Readers, since it's Thanksgiving holiday season, I thought I'd asked some of our patients in recovery what they were most grateful for or hopeful for. Their answers were not only heartwarming, but some of them were quite surprising and they gave me so much hope. So I wanted to share these with you.

One writer writes 'I'm most grateful that this hospital has helped me get sober. I hope that I will be able to see my children this year, now that I'm in recovery.'

Another writes, 'my mom and dad asked me to come to dinner this year. I haven't had Thanksgiving with them for at least five years because of my drug use. I can't wait to be with my family again', another reader writes, 'for the first time in almost eight years, I have a job and can actually afford a Thanksgiving Turkey for my kids.'

Another one writes, 'I'm grateful to the nurse who held my hand and treated me so kind during some of the worst withdrawals I have ever experienced. I wasn't very nice to her, but she stuck it out with me and I will remember her forever.'

Another writes, 'I hope to find a job this year or ungrateful that I'm no longer selling my body for drugs. I can't tell you how grateful I am to have a sponsor who really cares about me. She's helped me more than I can say. I'm grateful for my NAA meetings. When I go to these meetings, I know I'm not alone in my struggle to stay sober.'

These are the reasons I said I keep on.


It certainly does make you want to believe that there's hope for recovery for everyone who needs it. My final question is about you. Why, why are you so passionate about helping this population of patients? What drives you?


So, Kristin, I come from a world as a child that saw the ravages of addiction. My father was a violent alcoholic and I basically grew up in a war zone. Because of that, I walked the precipice of drug and alcohol addiction myself when I was much younger, so I had that background. But, I think for me, it's about compassion. Compassion is what drives me. I actually had a reader asked me a similar question and I'm going to share my answers with you,

"Dear Miss. Cathy, I have enjoyed reading your questions and answers, and I'm pleased to see this topic being discussed as the devastation of substance abuse in our community is underreported. But what motivates your writing this column?

Dear Reader, let me share a story with you that illustrates my passion. About a year or so ago a young woman around the age of 29 and a mother with three children lost her life in the battle against drugs. She came in very sick with a high fever, disoriented, confused, very short of breath. And as one of her healthcare providers, I spent some time talking to her just prior to her death. Because she was so ill and short of breath she said very little. But she clutched my hand as we sat together and the fear and regret in her eyes said everything. That day touched my heart and I wrote a poem to express everything. I thought she wanted to say, this is called

What I Wish I Had Done Instead.

I wished I had liked myself

Enough to have said NO.

I wish I had been strong enough

To never have let go.

I wish I had told my kids

I really do love you, you know

I wish I had put them first

This is going to come as a blow.

I wish I could have believed

My mom and dad when they said,

We love you, come home,

But I chose heroin instead

I wish I had finished school

Maybe that would have made a difference

But I thought I was too cool

I didn’t need that existence.

I should have gone to the beach

Enjoyed the sun and the sand

Instead I shot up my life

Through my arms, my feet and my hands.

I wish I had stopped

Looking for a fictitious bliss

I never intended for my life

To end here, not like this.

I feel my time is drawing near

And I am afraid of what comes next

But the horsemen cometh, I can hear

And I am about to lose everything I hold dear.

These are the things I wish I had done instead.

So when you ask me why I care, why I do what I do, my response is simple – in the end, it’s about helping people do the things they wish they had done instead.


That is just extremely powerful and extremely heartbreaking at the same time.

Is there anything else you'd like to say before we sign off?


Well, for those of you seeking help, please call our addiction medicine clinic (239) 343-9190 again, (239) 343-9190. Please believe you can recover and don't forget to connect online with Kimmy's Recovery Zone as well.

You did a great job, KristIn. Thank you.


Thank you. It was my pleasure.

Until next time when Cathy will be back to host I'm Kristin Stubbs, and this has been HeartBeats, Shipley Cardiothoracic Centers podcast, dedicated to bringing research innovation and education to our patients and the community

In honor of Recovery Month guest host, Kristin Stubbs joins Cathy Murtagh-Schaffer, PA and Project Coordinator for Substance Abuse with Lee Health, to bring awareness to recovery from addiction and to speak on the mental health issues associated with substance abuse.

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