Chilling discussion about opioid epidemic shared at Pine-Richland High School
Approximately 60 parents and Pine-Richland community members gathered at the high school on Oct. 9 for a 90-minute frank discussion on opioid use, how it affects the brain, why recovery is so difficult and how the epidemic sweeping the nation impacts us all.
Dr. C. Thomas Brophy, an emergency room physician with a degree in neuroscience and a certification in addiction medicine, led the presentation. Joining him was Michelle Schwartzmier, whose daughter Casey died of a heroin overdose at the age of 20. Schwartzmier kept a promise to her daughter and wrote an honest obituary about Casey’s struggles with addiction that went viral. Casey’s was the 12th overdose death in Allegheny County in 2017, and she died Jan. 15. She overdosed in her bedroom, sitting next to a suitcase she’d packed because she was leaving for rehab the next day.
She wanted her mother to share her story.
They also gave a presentation to students in school the following day.
With a photo of a beautiful, smiling young woman on the screen behind her, Schwartzmier shared with fellow parents that her daughter was a cheerleader, a competitive dancer and a black belt in Taekwondo. They lived in the North Hills and Casey loved her family, especially her little brother, loved animals and dreamed of a future, her mother said.
“We need to get in touch with what’s really happening here and break that stigma,” Schwartzmier said. “We all grew up with TV and movies and this picture of this dirty junkie in your head, a troll under a bridge. They go through huge highs and lows and hit rock bottom, but that is not the face of addiction anymore. This is the face of addiction. … She was an addict, and she looks just like your kids.”
Schwartzmier discussed her daughter’s progression from stealing a few beers at a slumber party at 14 to stealing pills and eventually doing heroin at 16, their honest discussions about what she was going through and the battle she was fighting, the things she now thinks about looking back and her advice for parents today.
Brophy discussed how opioids affect the limbic system that controls basic human emotion and drive, such as the need for food, water and shelter, the changes that occur in the brain with drug use, the unmatched surge of dopamine opioids provide and how the body eventually stops producing its own dopamine.
He also provided a number of statistics, including the fact that one out of five men and one out of six women ages 18 to 24 have taken an opioid in a way that wasn’t prescribed by a doctor in the past year, and that 30-day rehabilitation programs for opioid addiction only have a 3-percent success rate.
Northern Regional Police Department detective and Pine-Richland school resource officer Scott Rick also spoke briefly and told the audience that he’d been on the job 23 years and just two weeks ago arrested his first 17-year-old for a a drug-related armed robbery.
A month-and-a-half ago there was an incident with a group of kids taking acid and one young man jumped through a plate glass window.
“These are the things we’re seeing in our communities,” he said. “We’ve had 34 overdoses since 2016, and everybody here knows our communities. Very nice, very comfortable. Thirty-four overdoses. That’s a lot. What’s part of the problem? In my opinion, I’m tired of parents burying their heads in the sand. It is time for you, and me, and community members to stop if you know there’s a problem going on.”
If we reduce addiction, Brophy said, everyone’s life improves.
“As a physician, if there’s less addiction out there it makes it easier to care for everybody,” said Brophy, whose brother is a recovering heroin addict. “As people out there in the community, if an addict falls asleep at the wheel and hits one of your loved ones, that’s going to affect your life forever. So if we all open our minds and open our hearts a little bit and compassionately address this addiction issue, and do whatever we have to do to make it better, everybody’s life improves.”
Karen Price is a Tribune-Review contributor.